Stories of Bruges

Jan van Eyck, our most important painterHistorical figures

Posted by Your Bruges Thu, February 15, 2018 13:30:22

When you visit the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, you can’t miss the painting by Jan van Eyck; Virgin and Child with Canon Van der Paele.

Jan van Eyck was one of the Early Netherlandish painters (Flemish Primitives). This group of artists worked in the 15th and beginning of the 16th century in flourishing cities as Bruges, Ghent, Leuven, Tournai and Brussels. Some of the most known names were Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes, Hans Memling, Dirk Bouts and Gerard David.
In those centuries the Southern part of the Netherlands was the centre of economic and political power. With all those trading partners converging in that area these artists soon made name and fame in all of Europe.

Jan van Eyck introduced a style that was never seen before. With an unprecedented eye for the tiniest detail, a perception-based view of the visual reality. It is remarkable that the innovations of van Eyck run surprisingly similar with the developments in Florentine paintings. There are a lot of speculations on the ties between van Eyck and his Italian colleagues, but tangible proof is still missing.

Blog imagePortrait of a man (supposed self-portrait)

Jan van Eyck is also the personification of the transition from an anonymous, modest painter to an educated, self-aware and famous individual. He put his signature and a date on many of works, on the frame or hidden in the painting. His motto “Als ich can” (roughly translated to “If I can”) is found on several frames. All this points to the fact he was proud and aware of his standing and craftsmanship, an attitude that will become typical for the artists of the renaissance.

Where Jan van Eyck was born is uncertain. The family name could refer to the Belgian city Maaseik. And it’s generally accepted that this could indeed be the birthplace of little Jan. Some documents dating from the 16th century confirm this assumption.

However the Township of Arendonk has also strong arguments in which it claims to be the birthplace of little Jan. Art-historical the exact birthplace or origin of a painter was less important. Less important than the place where he learned his profession. And when I look at the statements this Township makes, they could be right.
In the Altarpiece of Ghent (Lam Gods) there is a prophet kneeling (centre panel) with an open book. The text reads: “Iste erat electus alios eligi nec licet testis deest et eis esto testis est igitur Jan van der Moelnere ex Arendonca civitate”. This handwritten text by Jan van Eyck names the nickname Van der Moelen. This name that be found in the town documents of Arendonk, next to the signature of Jan van Eyck…

Also when Jan van Eyck was born is controversial. There are no authenticated sources that can verify anything. So everything is done through interpretations of the documented events during the life of Jan van Eyck. There is a document that states that Hubert – the brother of Jan – was born around 1366 and that Jan was considerably younger. Today the year 1390 is the most accepted date of birth for little Jan.

The first documents telling us where Jan van Eyck was, date back to 1422. Then he was already named a “Master”, had one assistant and worked for Jan van Beieren, Duke of Holland and living in Den Haag (The Hague). When Jan van Beieren died in 1425, Jan van Eyck moved to Bruges. Documents tell us that on May 19th 1425 Jan van Eyck was the court painter of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (grandfather of Mary of Burgundy, whom I mention several times during my walk).

In August of 1426 Jan van Eyck is paid for two trips in order of Philip the Good. The first is a pilgrimage he makes in the place of the Duke. The second trip however is classified as a “secret mission”, bringing the artist to “distant countries”. Nothing more is mentioned in the documents found. It is suspected that Jan van Eyck travels to the Holy Land, passing Italy and further on to the Ottoman Empire.

Blog imageJan stayed in Tournai from 1427 until 1432. Om May 6th 1432 the Altarpiece of Ghent is ready. The son of Philips the Good and Isabella of Portugal, Joos van Gent is baptised there on that day. Unfortunately shortly after, in 1434, Joos van Gent dies. It is also in 1432 Jan van Eyck settled permanently in Bruges. His house and workshop was in the Gouden Handstraat 6.

In 1434 he paints the Arnolfini Portrait and it’s assumed he receives the order for Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele, that he finishes in 1436.
In 1436 he goes on another “secret mission” for the Duke of Burgundy. He must have been a type of James Bond!
In the years that follow he makes more works. One thing I found strange… Next to a couple of secret missions I also found a payment for “some panels and other secret objects” in 1440. He really was a spy, I think.

Jan van Eyck died on July 9th 1441 and was buried on St Donathian’s Cathedral cemetery. In 1442 the body was moved to the choir inside the cathedral.

With bringing name and fame to Bruges, it is safe to say Jan van Eyck was one of our most important painters ever.

Today, his works can be found all over the world. In Belgium there are two works in Bruges, two in Antwerp and the Altarpiece in Ghent. But in Berlin, Dresden, Frankfurt, Vienna, Rotterdam, Paris, Madrid, London, Turin, Sibiu, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington you can admire his works. Except for Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and London I haven’t seen other works. Have you noticed them and did you know it was a Flemish artist you were looking at?

I'll be telling you more about a couple of his works, as the symbolism is sometimes really fun!

Bruges La MorteHistorical figures

Posted by Your Bruges Tue, February 13, 2018 20:39:37

Georges Rodenbach and Bruges La Morte

Georges Rodenbach was born in Doornik in 1855, son of a family with German origins. Patriarch Ferdinand (1714-1786) was a chirgan with the Austrian army, who settled in Ypres after the marriage with Catharina Vanden Bossche.

The name Rodenbach may sound familiar to the beer lovers amongst you, and you are right. One of the grandsons of Ferdinand was the founder of the known beer Rodenbach.

Georges lived in Ghent, went there to school and university. He graduated in law in 1878, but before passing the bar in Ghent he first went to Paris to improve his legal competences. In Paris he mostly spent his free time in literary salons to make friends with numerous poets and writers. It was no secret that Georges was a writer of poems and novels himself. In that year in Paris he wrote 21 “Lettres Parisiennes” (Letters from Paris) for the catholic Brussels weekly “La Paix”.

Feeling homesick he returned to Ghent and started working as a lawyer. Disappointed in his work, his love for the literary arts prevails. He keeps close contacts with the Brussels literary circle “L’Union Littéraire”, where he becomes friends with Caroline Popp, writer and publisher of “Journal de Bruges”. This friendship is so strong he spends the entire summer of 1884 with her in Bruges, getting the important impressions of the city of Bruges.

Georges is so disappointed in his work as lawyer in Ghent, that he moved to Brussels to work there as a lawyer. But again is love and passion for the literary arts wins and in 1888 he leaves Belgium and moves to Paris to become a fulltime writer and poet. He moved in different artistic circles where he made friends with some prominent people; Mallarmé, Daudet, Rodin…

He also started working for the liberal newspaper “Le Figaro” where he wrote several serials on cities as Ghent, Middelburg and… Bruges.

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It is in the format of a serial that Rodenbachs most known work is published for the first time. Bruges La Morte tells the story of widower Hugues Viane, looking for the shadow of his deceased wife and is attracted to Bruges. One of the rooms of his house on the Rozenhoedkaai is devoted to his wife; with several portraits and in a glass shrine a lock of hair of her. To pass the time he made long walk through the city. During one of these walks he meets a woman whom is the spitting image of his wife. He becomes friends with her. Turns out she’s an actress and her name is Jane Scott. During their dates Hugues seeks the traits of his deceased wife. Somehow he has her moving in to one of his houses just outside the centre of the city. However, soon Jane gets bored in this bizarre relationship and goes out in search for more enjoyable company. In Bruges gossip about this widower and actress starts. With months passing by, Hugues discovers more and more differences between Jane and his wife. When Jane discovers the room with portraits and lock of hair, she confronts him with this and everything goes wrong. He strangles her with the lock of hair.

What made this work special? The main character in this book isn’t Hugues Viane, but the city. The bells of the Belfry, the Beguinage, the atmosphere of the city… It all plays an important part in the setting.

But the people of Bruges didn’t appreciate the book! It was published on February 4th – 14th 1892. This was the moment Bruges took on the plans to (re)connect with the sea and expanding its harbour (Zeebrugge). Just then this writer from Paris wrote a book with “dead” in the title! Also the colourless setting isn’t something the people of Bruges liked.
Also there was the language in which it was written; French. The Flemish-fanatics accused the writer of immoral, obscene and anti-religious thoughts, having the descriptions of the relationship between Hugues and Jane in mind. Maybe difficult to understand today, don’t forget that people had a totally different view on love and relationships in those times.

While Rodenbach didn’t want to put a 100% accurate realistic image of the city on paper. He only wanted to vent his personal feelings, feelings of melancholy in which Bruges formed a perfect frame for this.
It is however without a doubt that Rodenbach –maybe unwillingly and without realising- boosted tourism in Bruges. It is a paradox but Rodenbach didn’t want to depict Bruges as a dead city. He fought this controversy by adding a foreword in reprints of Bruges La Morte, trying to explain his intentions.

Georges Rodenbach died in Paris on December 25th 1898. And even after his death there was protest coming from Bruges. The Flemish catholics and conservatives remained opposed, depicting him as “French”, who made Flemish people as fools and mocking Bruges. The symbolism used in the book was misinterpreted, taken too literally and considered too bold. Creating an image of a dead could be blocking the expansion of the port of Zeebrugge and this would be ill-fated form the economic growth of Bruges.

Still today, if you go looking for anything on him in Bruges, the only reminder is a plaque on the house ‘De Rode Steen’ at the Jan van Eyck Square.

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It is clear that Rodenbach was and still is a misunderstood figure in the history of Bruges. Except for the controversy of those times it is impossible to recognize the major influence the book had on Bruges and its tourism.

With the book being translated in several languages (English, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Finnish and Dutch) it attracted many people from all over Europe, and today the world. After all the misinterpretations maybe it's time we recognize what Georges Rodenbach did for the city.

What do you think the city of Bruges could do to remember and commemorate him?