Arnolfini Wedding is a wedding portrait by Jan van Eyck. One of the
first works to be done in oil paint on panel, the level of detail and
realism is unprecedented. The mathematical precision makes the room
believably three dimensional, and the light flowing in the window adds
a glow to the oil paints. Both of the subjects are dressed in the height
of fashion for the time, and look completely lifelike. However, it is
the smaller details that make the work so interesting. Symbols such
as the fruit (fertility) and the shoes (a man's place) are scattered
throughout. The purely decorative bed, especially a red one, is a symbol
of passion as well. It is clear here that van Eyck is experimenting
and perhaps even showing off. The furry dog, the tiny images surrounding
the amazing convex mirror and the photograph-like candelabra on the
ceiling are all extremely difficult to paint, but are all pulled off
with ease. I really enjoy it. If not for the slightly strange looking
couple, then for the small details which add personality, character
and awe to an otherwise uneventful portrait. The masterful way van Eyck
uses oil paints to create such objects leaves no question as to why
he was one of the greatest artists who ever lived.
He is not the only amazing man to come out of this time, though. Rogier
Van der Weyden, while not quite as realistic as van Eyck, was very skilled
at capturing true feeling and emotion in his subjects. His works were
intended to make people feel what the subjects were feeling, or to glimpse
a truth within them. His influence was felt in France, Germany, Italy
A much stranger man is Hieronymous Bosch. His works used bizarre and
symbolic imagery to convey messages about morality and religion. His
views were extremely pessimistic. It is unclear if his paintings were
meant to stir people up, to amuse people, or to send a deeper and important
message. Either way, he was very successful and received business from
all over. Looking at the works of Dali today, you could say that Bosch
was far ahead of his time.
Albrecht Dürer is another highly
important artist. His woodcut prints made him a lot of money, and his
paintings were not only amazing works of art but also windows into his
mind. These prints spread across Europe and undoubtedly influenced Titian,
Parmigianino and Raphael. His self-portraits also set a precedent for
many later artists painting an excess of self-imagery.
Portrait of a Man
Jan van Eyck
oil on panel
25.5 x 19 cm
National Gallery, London
Subject: Thought to be a self-portrait,
it is at the very least an artist. This is known by the head garment,
which accounts for the painting often being mistitled Man in a Turban.
The accessory is in fact a chaperon. Here, it is not worn traditionally.
A long 'tail' usually extends from the back of the doughnut-shaped head
garment worn by many facets of society at this time. Artists, however,
would tie it up to keep it from getting in the way of either the eyes
or the painting itself. The look in the subject's eyes is almost glazed-over,
similar to the appearance of looking at oneself in the mirror. This
furthers the speculation that this piece is likely a self-portrait.
The Artists's Work: Van Eyck captures in this portrait a lot
of realism, but conceals a lot of personality. Superficial elements
can tell us some things about the man but there is little on a human
level to enlighten us. Technically speaking, the painting is done with
extreme skill. The cloth making up the chaperon is completely believable,
as are the wrinkles of his aging skin. Even on aged oil paint, the skin
still looks touchably smooth. This painting makes use of chiaroscuro
which is an Italian word meaning light-dark. A lit subject is used in
juxtaposition with dark background and surroundings to draw attention
where it is deemed necessary. Here, the face is the main subject, and
so the background is completely devoid of light and the outfit is very
nearly the same.
Reaction: First looking at this painting,
I didn't think it was anything very special. No interesting background
meant I was stuck having to stare at this unnamed man. After finding
out it was a possible self-portrait, I began to see a new side to it.
Now when I look at the face, I see a feeling of "I know something
you don't know" in his eyes and mouth. He almost looks like a man
trying to conceal a smile. Does he know that people will one day puzzle
over his identity? It is almost Mona Lisa-like in this way. So, though
the painting itself is not beautiful or stunning enough for me to have
a desire to have it hanging on my wall, the mystery and interest surrounding
it and evident in the corners of his mouth makes it one I could easily
get lost in.
Descent of Christ from the Cross
Rogier van der Weyden
oil on oak panel
220 x 262 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Subject: This piece is a deposition,
meaning it shows Christ being removed from the cross after his death.
This scene, the 13th station of the cross, is often just as striking
as scenes of the Lamentation as Christ is often clearly limp and dead.
Mary is shown in extreme sorrow, as are Christ's other followers. Traditionally,
depositions are painted with Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus removing
Christ's crucified body from the cross. Usually, part of the humiliation
and horror of crucifixion was the fact that the bodies were not removed
and were left hanging to rot and be eaten. That Christ was removed is
important in itself.
The Artists's Work: Commissioned by Saint George's Guild of the
crossbowmen, it has an odd shape to fit a particular wall, but it is
convenient for a deposition. He crowds the subjects around the cross
in a way that suggests claustrophobia. This is quite a gothic notion.
Many other elements are included to set the viewer at unease. First,
a wall is painted behind the subjects. The deposition obviously didn't
take place indoors and so the viewer, once they notice this, feels disturbed.
Also, Mary and Jesus are in a very similar position. His death mirrors
her grief as she swoons into the arms of St. John the Evangelist. The
detail evident in the wall decor and the clothing of the onlookers shows
great skill on the part of van der Weyden.
Reaction: While I appreciate the reasons for it, I don't particularly
like the crowding of this work. It feels to me like a throwback to the
Gothic age, and this does nothing for me. Mary's understandable pallor
bothers me, and the colours all feel contrived. To me, Mary and Jesus
mirror to a ridiculous extent to the point that it is distracting. Though
there are many features designed to disturb the viewer, I find myself
simply bored and unmoved. I suppose seeing it in real life might be
more striking, but I somehow doubt it. Boring and emotionless is how
I would describe the work, surely the opposite of the intended reaction
I should experience.
The Garden of Earthly Delights
oil on wood
220 x 389 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Subject: This piece is a triptych,
meaning it is a 3-panelled, folding painting. The outside of the work
shows the Earth as it is being created. God is shown in the corner and
the earth is full of plant life. We open the painting and the first
scene is one of the Garden of Eden. It is peaceful and harmonious. God
is shown presenting Eve to Adam. Here, God is shown younger looking
than the outer painting. The second panel is today's world, after the
expulsion from Eden. It is fantastical and bizarre, debauched and busy.
Filled with people doing strange things, it shows the path of humans
to hell. Finally, the far right panel shows hell. People are crucified,
beasts torture and kill, and a city in the background burns.
The Artists's Work: The largest and probably most strange of
the four paintings is the central one. It is filled with nude people,
both light and dark skinned, doing all sorts of odd things. They ride
beasts, both fantastic and real around a pond. In the background is
a lake containing a debauchery-filled sphere. Fruits are everywhere,
being eaten and used strangely, often magnified. Futuristic contraptions
give the painting a feeling of modern art though it is still clearly
Renaissance. The leftmost panel shows a youthful looking God between
Eve and Adam. He eyes her with a sinful look, and she does nothing to
stop this. Bosch's pessimistic view of the world is evident here: we
never had a chance, we were always doomed to fall from grace. The hell
scene is more similar to the central panel, perhaps drawing parallels
between our world and hell itself. Musical instruments feature heavily;
at this time they were often used to symbolize sins. A pig dressed as
a nun beats a man, and an eerily modern looking city burns in the background.
A pair of ears wields a knife. All three panels and filled to the brim
with complex symbolism which likely would have made sense to people
at the time, especially those who belonged to Bosch's church, the Brotherhood
of the Virgin. Unfortunately, many of the hidden meanings died with
him. We can only speculate today on the meanings.
Reaction: There is so much to look at in this work that it is
difficult to know where to start. The shared skyline of the first two
panels provides a pleasant flow to the piece that is interrupted when
we reach hell. On closer inspection, the disturbing nature of the work
became clear to me. Perhaps the most creepy is the bird/lizard-like
creature devouring a human headfirst. The pig nun is hardly a calming
image either. Even in the panel depicting today, the perversion and
lack of shame is evident. They appear to have the same attitudes as
those on the Ship of Fools. Also unsettling to me is the burning image
in the background of hell. The city looks like a modern bombed city.
The 'tree man', who Bosch had drawn before, stares out at us and I am
disinclined to stare back. Overall, the work intrigues me, but I don't
like it. Looking at it, I feel a morbid curiosity as opposed to enjoyment.
oil on panel
52 x 41 cm
1498 (Italian Renaissance)
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Subject: This painting is one
of Dürer's many self-portraits. He paints himself here with an air of
confidence that was not entirely there in his earlier works. On the
back wall there is an inscription. It states "Das malt ich nach meiner
gestalt / Ich war sex und zwenzig Jor alt/ Albrecht Dürer" Which translates
to "I painted this from my own appearance; I was twenty-six years
old". By this time, he is an accomplished artist and is respected
as such. Though he wears the hat of an artist, his gloves and other
attire give him a courtly appearance unusual for a painter. His facial
hair is also unusual for this time. When this was painted, the artist
had just returned from his first trip to Italy. The background is probably
the alps, or some sight from his trip. Though he does look confident,
he doesn't look entirely at ease, possibly due to his religious uncertainty
at this time.
The Artists's Work: The focus of the word is clearly the face
and hands. The gaze of the artist is somewhat glazed as he painted it
using a mirror he bought on one of his trips. However, aside from these
two important parts of the painting, he gives us other things to look
at. Outside, is in incredibly detailed landscape which harkens back
to his watercolours. Also, his outfit is extremely detailed and interesting.
Lace, rope, folds, straps and rouching all sit gently providing visual
interest but do not look busy or unsettling. His golden rests on his
shoulders, framing his expressive eyebrows. The style of painting portraits
like these in a windowed room came from Dirk Bouts several decades earlier.
Though not as striking as a very dark background, it does not take away
from the personality of the subject. His body shape reflects the L-shape
of the window which only increases the focus on the face and hands.
Reaction: When I first saw this piece, my reaction was immediately
positive. The colours, though not bright, looked pleasant to me. His
clothing, though obviously I know nothing about fashion at this time,
looked somehow cool to me and I was not surprised to learn that he was
representing the height of fashion for this time. The way the cape sits
on his shoulder looks so natural, that it could have been a spontaneous
photograph; except, of course, for the fact that he is completely posed.
I also completely believe the way the fabric is folded and wrinkled.
His hands, too, I was impressed with because I always have found it
particularly impossible to draw realistic hands. The hair is so incredibly
detailed and falls with such naturalism over his shoulders that is is
hard to believe he was using a paintbrush. Effortless is a word that
comes to mind as I look at him. Both his appearance and the painting
seem to be pulled off with ease. If (and it's a big if) I were ever
to get bored of looking at him, I could take a look out the window where
Dürer has painted for us a beautiful miniature landscape. He has truly
brought the best of two facets of art into one painting which is my