Some of the most important contributions to the history of painting come to us from the regions of Flanders and Burgundy. Here, artists developed a unique style characterized by disguised symbolism and heavy detail, aided by the introduction of oil paints. Jan Van Eyck, one of the first artists to use oil paint, expressed the divinity of the figures he painted not by using halos but by surrounding them with an aura of heavenly light, as in The Madonna in the Church. This painting, with its attention to light and minute detail, brings the imaginary to life, and in doing so exemplifies the type of art produced by Early Netherlandish painters in the 15th century.
The dominating power in Europe during the Middle Ages was the Catholic Church. As the sole patron of the arts, it commissioned artwork that often appeared flat and unrealistic. By painting figures with a gold background and without much attention to volume and shading, artists emphasized that these saints occupied a heavenly realm instead of the earthly world of humans. The Church also feared that making divine figures appear too realistic would encourage idolatry. However, the rise of a mercantile economy with thriving upper- and middle-class citizens created a new class of patrons.
Devotional altarpieces, where the commissioner would be shown praying to a divine figure, became popular in Northern Europe, especially in the form of diptychs. Oil paints allowed artists to accurately render texture and detail, making it possible to paint divine figures with an unprecedented level of clarity and realism. Together with the influence of Humanism, which promoted the idea that divine figures could occupy earthly spaces, these factors allowed Flemish artists to make heavenly visions appear real with oil on panel.
Van Eyck’s The Madonna in the Church is a testament to these social and artistic innovations: it it believed to have once been part of a devotional altarpiece, commissioned by a merchant or banker; the versatility of the new oil paint is exploited to the fullest; Mary occupies the physical world of humans, no longer confined to an imaginary heavenly space. She stands inside an ornate cathedral with stained glass windows that flood the space with light, which falls into two pools on the floor behind her. The jewels and gold embroidery on the Madonna’s gown shimmer and delicate slivers of light slant in from the clerestory windows above. Instead of using a flat gold background to indicate the divinity of the scene, Van Eyck captures the effects of light itself. The scene shimmers and glows in a half-heavenly, half-earthly way.
Despite illustrating the groundbreaking changes in Northern European art and society, this painting still retains some ties to the past. The subject matter- Mary with the Christ Child- is reminiscent of the Marian devotion that was popular during the Gothic period, though the theme is as old as the Church itself. The Cathedral in which Mary is standing is a clear example of Gothic architecture- there are stained glass clerestory windows along the nave, showing images of saints and cathedrals, and flying buttresses are visible through the windows. These elements indicate that unlike portions of Italy, Flanders had yet to separate itself completely from the enduring influence of the Late Gothic period.
By making the vision of Mary highly detailed, Jan Van Eyck sought to express how the world may look through God’s perfect vision, and invites us to share that vision with Him. His use of the new oil technique is a key factor in his ability to render texture and detail, which in turn is vital to express the effects of light and color. The Madonna in the Church exemplifies the type of art commissioned by those who wished to express their personal devotion to a divine figure.
List of Resources
Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, “Madonna in the Church,” Smarthistory Web Book, Khan Academy http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/van-eyck-the-madonna-in-the-church.html
Melissa Hall, “Art Before the Renaissance,” Art 109 Renaissance to Modern, Westchester Community College
Melissa Hall, “Painting in Burgundy and Flanders,” Art 109 Renaissance to Modern, Westchester Community College
“Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych,” National Gallery of Art http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2006/diptych/diptych.shtm
“Humanism in the Renaissance,” The Renaissance Connection, Allentown Art Museum
Dr. Nancy Ross, “The Image in Early Medieval Art,” Smarthistory Web Book, Khan Academy