Rogier Van der Weyden and Hugo Van der Goes

Rogier Van der Weyden, Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, c. 1435-1440

Rogier van der Weyden was a student of Robert Campin, and his fame rivaled that of Jan Van Eyck.  This painting was commissioned by the artists’ guild of Brussels and depicts Saint Luke drawing the Virgin.  According to legend, St. Luke was the first artist to record the likeness of the Virgin, so Rogier was honoring the artist’s profession by choosing this particular subject.  It is believed that the artist used his own face as a model for St. Luke – a bold statement of self-importance that reflects the increasing self awareness of artists, who began to regard themselves as professionals, rather than mere skilled artisans.

In this particular scene Mary is breastfeeding the Christ child (this is referred to as the “Lactating Madonna”), an astonishingly “human” touch.  Typical of Flemish painting, the scene takes place in a contemporary Flemish interior, with a view out the window to a town and landscape beyond.

Rogier Van der Weyden, Deposition, c. 1435

This painting formed the center panel of a triptych commissioned by the guild of armorers (their crossbow emblem appears in the corners).  It depicts the moment when Christ was taken down from the cross (Giotto’s Lamentation depicts the moment after this scene).  The action takes place in a shallow space, as if on a stage (the gold background recalls Medieval conventions, albeit in three dimensional setting).  Most notable is Rogier’s emphasis on psychology and emotion, an interest that recalls Giotto.  The facial expressions and gestures of the figures communicate deeply human emotions, right down to the salty tears glistening on the cheeks of the Virgin.

While Van der Weyden’s work is similar to Giotto in his humanistic approach and his focus on emotion, his work differs from Giotto in its extraordinary attention to detail.  Giotto’s use of fresco made it necessary to focus on broad sculptural form, while oil painting made it possible to render richly detailed surfaces and textures.


Rogier van der Weyden, Deposition, c. 1435 (Prado, Madrid) Speakers: David Drogin and Beth Harris (Khan Academy)

Hugo Van Der Goes

Hugo Van Der Goes, Portinari Altarpiece, c 1476

Similar to the Merode Altarpiece, this painting was commissioned by Tomasso Portinari, a Florentine businessman who frequently traveled to the Netherlands on business.  It was rare for a Florentine patron to commission work from a Flemish artist (as we will see, there were many excellent artists working in Florence at this time), but Portinari brought the finished work back to Florence, where the artists there marveled at the oil painting technique they had never seen before.

The center panel depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds, with the Christ child lying outside a manger surrounded by Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and angels. The disjunctions in scale are a remnant of the Medieval use of hieratic scale to indicate importance, but the realism of the scene is otherwise remarkable.  Note the realistic landscape setting, with several episodes from the Nativity story represented in the distance:  Joseph and Mary on the road to Bethlehem in the left panel, the Annunciation to the Shepherds in the center, and the Three Magi in the right panel.  The realism of the shepherds is particularly noteworthy, since they look like authentic country workers with their grizzled beards and coarse clothes.  The work may in fact be based on contemporary “Mystery Plays” in which local folks re-enacted the story of the Nativity at Christmas time.

Like most Flemish paintings, the picture is filled with disguised symbols.  The sheaf of wheat in the foreground and the majolica pitcher allude to Christ’s future sacrifice and the Eucharistic sacrament of bread and wine (symbolizing the body and blood of Christ), and the flowers are also symbolic (the orange lilies symbolize the Passion of Christ, the white irises symbolize purity, and the purple irises symbolize the seven sorrows of the Virgin).

The left and right panels depict Tomasso Portinari and his family being introduced to the scene by their patron saints (patron saints acted as “intercessors” and personal guardians to individuals named after them).


Hugo van er Goes, The Adoration of the Kings (Monforte Altar), c. 1470, oil on oak, 147 x 242 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin).  Speakers:  Stephen Zucker and Beth Harris (Khan Academy)

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Web Resources
Early Netherlandish Art at the Metropolitan Museum
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/enet/hd_enet.htm 

Netherlandish Painting in the 1400s, National Gallery of Art
http://www.nga.gov/collection/gallery/gg39/gg39-main1.html 

Netherlandish Painting, Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_Netherlandish_painting 

Flanders, Smarthistory
http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/Flanders.html 

Ghent altarpiece, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ghnt/hd_ghnt.htm 

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