Stories of Bruges

Stories of Bruges

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Jan van Eyck, our most important painter

Historical figuresPosted 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.

Portrait 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.

Jan stayed in Tournai from 1427 until 1432. On 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!



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