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Rogier van der Weyden, one of the most well-known and influential Netherlandish painters of the fifteenth century, was born in the city of Tournai in Belgium in about 1400. A son of a cutler, after completing his apprenticeship with Robert Campin, he moved to Brussels where he was made the official painter to the city. He also undertook important commissions for the greatest members of the Burgundian court, including the famous Duke Philip the Good. His career was extremely successful. He quickly established a prosperous workshop and an international reputation.
Van der Weyden’s powerful religious paintings reflect an intense personal belief; his portraits are often characterised by a tender, reflective godliness. His expressive, naturalistic style was widely imitated, and set the pattern for Netherlandish painting and had a profound effect on Europe as a whole.
Brussels’ Official Painter
About 1427 Rogier van der Weyden was apprenticed to Robert Campin, then a leading painter of Tournai. Because the age of twenty six would have been rather late for doing that, some scholars argue that the painter probably only formally registered when he saw the possibility of establishing himself as an independent master. In his article on van der Weyden for example, A.J. Wauters points out that “no text now remains, by which accuracy of the statement that Rogier began his apprenticeship in 1427, as made by the copyist of the register of painters of Tournai, called Recuiel de St. Luc, can be tested”. For him the date seems improbable as Rogier was then already a husband of Elisabeth Goffaert and the father of a son named Corneille. It is almost certain for the author, that the copyist must have made a mistake, perhaps writing 1427 instead 1417. And, as early as 17th of November 1426, on one of Rogier’s visits to Tournai, the Magistrate offered him the ‘wine of honour’, in recognition of the gleam which he castes on his town. His career had opened already then, under the greatest patronage, says Wauters.
In French-speaking Tournai, Rogier was known as ‘de la Pasture’. The name was translated to Van der Weyden when he moved to Flemish Brussels. Before 1435, he settled there and was appointed official painter to the city. The new title led to official commissions such as the four panels on the theme of justice painted for the court room of the Town Hall. They illustrated the justice of Trajan and Herkinbald, a legendary Duke of Brabant, and were intended as a permanent reminder to the judges of their well-known family. This vast project must have taken several years to complete. The first panel bears the date 1439, and it is assumed that the others were finished in the 1440s.
Rogier may have worked as a sculptor before he became a painter. As a rule, painters in those days were familiar with sculpture. Not only did they polychrome statuary, but one of the challenges to the art of painting was to create the illusion of sculpture, especially on the outsides of the shutters of an altarpiece. Rogier’s father is said to have been a sculptor, and Robert Campin is mentioned as both, painter and sculptor. The artist was involved in various works for the city, including designs for decorative schemes and sculptures. It seems that Van der Weyden did not have to travel in search for employment, as we know of only one journey: in 1450 he went to Italy, visited Rome and Ferrara (the portrait of Lionello d’Este dates from this time, the altar panels at Frankfort and Florence are likely of the same period).
The Major Commissions
His employment as town painter did not stop van der Weyden accepting other commissions. Rogier did a great deal of portrait paintings, particularly because after Jan Van Eyck’s death he was the most renowned painter in the Netherlands. In his time, the court resided mainly in Brussels, where it claimed his services, and the demand for portraits of nobility gradually grew. Brussels was a favourite residence of the Burgundian duke, Philip the Good, for whom Rogier worked, although he was never made an official court painter like Jan van Eyck. It was, however, van der Weyden who produced the most popular portraits of Philip and his son Charles the Bold. The painter attempted to create an ideal image of the Duke. That was exactly what the contemporaries wanted, so his portraiture made van der Weyden very successful and popular. He was sought after by the grandest nobleman and bourgeoisie, who wanted him to record their faces for posterity. Members of the Burgundian court, such as Philip’s illegitimate son Antony, also turned to him for portraits, often wanting their own images eternalized in adoration of the divine in a diptych format.
Commissions for more public works, especially large altarpieces, also came van der Weyden’s way. An example is the great Last Judgment altarpiece ordered by the fabulously wealthy Burgundian chancellor, Nicholas Rolin and his very religious third wife, Guigonne de Salins. The work was commissioned for Rolin’s hospital in the Hotel-Dieu in Beaune, where it still hangs. Constructing of the hospital was accepted by Pope Eugenius IV in 1441. The dedication of hospital was to St. Anthony, who is shown in the shutter of the picture (the dedication was changed by Pope Nicolas V to St. John the Baptist, who is prominent in the interior scene of the Last Judgment ). The work began in 1443. The polyptych is the artist’s largest work, made of fifteen panels of different sizes. It was placed in the end of the nave, behind the altar, in a chapel separated from the nave by a wooden partition, through which patients could fallow the mass from their hospital beds. It was also the tradition to open the wings of the polyptych on Sundays and feast days.
Jean Chevrot, the Bishop of Turnai, had Van der Weyden paint the triptych of the Seven Sacraments, which are: Baptism, Communion, Confirmation, Confession, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders and Matrimony. The masterpiece is a good example of a big appeal the Christian sacraments had in early Netherlandish painting. The acts are presented around the central Crucifixion scene. The importance of the central panel is emphasised by enlarged figures. The figures of St. John and Mary overcame with grief are characteristic feature in Rogier’s art.
The magnificent Descent from the Cross was commissioned by the Louvain Archers’ Guild. As an altarpiece it was intended for a chapel in Louvain, but fell into Spanish hands in the sixteenth century. Today, it is on display in the Prado in Madrid.
Christ’s pale body is being taken down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. The corpse is almost immaculate and shiny apart from his bloody wounds. The crown of thorns hurt his forehead; a Roman soldier stubbed his midriff with his spear; here are the holes in Jesus’ hands and feet. This is the central scene of the picture. The corps forms a bow with the upper arm of his mother Mary Magdalene. Her immense sorrow causes her to collapse. In her fall, her body takes on the same shape as her son’s, implying that her co-suffering. Susie Nash In Northern Renaissance Art points out, that apart from underlining the Virgin’s co-passion, Jesus’ and her poses are “also brilliantly designed to refer to the patrons of the work, since both evoke the shape of a crossbow. Thus while the actual crossbows in the image are tiny, hanging from the tracery in the corners, the poses of Christ and the Virgin stamp the guilds identity on this work in an unmissable way”.
Each figure in the painting seems to be in the precise place. The sense of movement is limited on every side. “Caught in sculptural form, grief and sorrow have nowhere to go” remarks Max Frieländer.
Despite the busy narrative and all the figures taking part, Van der Weyden managed to build a convincing and intimate atmosphere, without giving a viewer a sense of crowdedness. The picture combines telling details with dramatic spatial density and unstable rhythm. Like Jan van Eyck, Rogier had the rare ability to combine grandeur of forma and delicacy of detail. The figures are almost life-size and their torment is expressed so passionately that it overwhelms the viewer completely.
Rogier van der Weyden often found an inspiration in the genius of Jan van Eyck. Madonna with St. Luke is an example of the influence van Eyck’s Rolin Madonna had on Rogier. As the town painter of Brussels he must have know and adored this masterpiece, but at the same time he departed from van Eyck with new motifs and ideas, which were later used in his own workshop.
Typical of the art of van Eyck is the striking atmospheric effect of chiaroscuro. Rogier took over the external elements of the setting, the hall with the three apertures opening on the garden completed by a wall, the two figures with their backs to the spectator, and the view of both banks of the river. To the younger master the architectural solutions of the elder artist seemed, above all other things, to be worth imitating. Van der Weyden’s Madonna, as a completely independent representation of this subject, established a new convention. Rogier’s saint Luke is not himself painting the Mother of God, like in the earlier pictures, but recording the silverpoint sketch. In Rogier’s works is was the content the mattered the most. In order to make the importance of the religious meaning stronger, he returned to the dominance of line (the contour was the main tool of expression in fourteenth century art). His figures and surrounding them architecture are always clearly and expressively outlined.
The monumental Escorial Crucifixion is the largest single panel by the artist. Rogier van der Weyden presented it himself to the Carthusian monastery of Scheut near Brussels in the en of his life, after his eldest son Corneille entered the Carthusian monastery. The monks sold the painting in 1555 to Philip II of Spain. The King placed the painting in the Escorial, where, in the late seventeenth century, it was badly damaged in a fire, which, along with following restorations, left the masterpiece in a very bad state of preservation.
The three figures seem very isolated. The figure of Saint John and Saint Mary represent two corresponding images of sorrow. This and their earnest faces make the narrative of the picture hard to read. Unlike his Descent from the Cross, this scene is placed in a stone niche, not in an altar shrine. The artists painted the figures of Virgin Mary and Saint John where we would rather expect sculpture, which reminds us of the cut in stone, monumental Crucifixion groups.We could still see them today in some churches. The stone-coloured garments, with definite, harsh folds, emphasize the sculptural quality of the picture and may also suggest the white habits of the Carthusian monks. The sculptures were often placed against real or painted fabrics. Rogier used a bright red cloth of honour, which, contrasting with the delicate tones of the panel, emphasises the overall emotional effect of the figures and presents them as saints.
Van der Weyden lived in prosperity since arriving in Brussels, and later, as a successful painter in great demand, managed to increase his fortune greatly over the thirty years of his career. No wonder than that he could afford the donation of his huge Crucifixion to the monastery in Scheut, which must have meant a considerable devotion of time and money. Rogier had also enough funds for a number of other gifts to churches in Brussels, and donations to the destitute.
Van der Weyden died in 1464 and was buried in the cathedral of Brussels, Saint Gudule. The artist’s genius was honoured with a requiem service. Van der Weyden’s son, his grandson, and his great-grandson, all became painters, but none of them shared his success.
Rogier’s influence and fame reached far and wide from Brussels, all the way to Germany, Italy and Spain. In the studios of the Netherlands it ruled pictorial invention and methods of work throughout the second half of the century. Van der Weyden run a large workshop where copies were being made to his design. The students later repeated Rogier’s compositional ideas, with more or less success.
In van der Weyden’s time there was no simple divide between ecclesiastical and secular patronage. The bishops and heads of religious houses often came from the same noble families as the courtiers. All the personages who have been identified as donors of altarpiece of Rogier’s hand (Pieter Bladelin, Nicolas Rolin, Jean de Chevrot, the Bishop of Tournai) were eminent men who had grown great in the favour of the court. His art was well suited to express the sombre splendour of secular as well as religious ceremonial, and it appealed especially to the dignitaries of the church.
The position Van der Weyden had achieved through his art could be illustrated by his association with the highest levels of society. He belonged to the prestigious confraternity of the Holy Cross in the church of St-Jacques-sur-Coudenberg and prospered sufficiently to make not only investments in Tournai stock but also, as I have already mentioned, he was able to present religious foundations with gifts, particularly to the Carterhouses of Scheut and Herinnes where his son was a monk.
However, the access to one of the greatest painters of the age was not restricted to dignitaries of church and state. Van der Weyden’s service was available to all who could afford it. Corporate commissions, such as that of the Louvain Archers’ Guild for the Descent from the Cross, could involve lower-ranking members of society in the commissioning the work of art. The Descent from the Cross is probably Rogier van der Weyden’s most impressive work. According to Davies, this picture alone makes it easy to credit that Rogier was the dominating painter of the north in the fifteenth century: “A sentiment of pity, so much then in people’s minds, clear presentation of forms easily recognised; strong and sincere piety; spirituality without strangeness; technical mastery”. The Descent from the Cross made a profound impression on his contemporaries, as testified by many copies and copies and imitations, and it almost certainly established Rogier’s fame. Susie Nash adds: “The originality of these figures, and the beauty of their shapes were so powerful that artists repeated them throughout Europe for a hundred of years: this is arguably the most influential painting of the fifteenth century”.
In Early Netherlandish Art Max Frieländer talks about two cogent reasons why Rogier van der Weyden became the most influential painter of the fifteenth century outside Italy: ‘firstly, his retrospective, completely non-revolutionary art was in harmony with the traditional tendencies still existing everywhere, and secondly, the essential character of his style proclaimed itself, not, as in the works in van Eyck, in the execution, but in the design, for which reason it was easier to learn and led to a more or less satisfactory result, even if the pupil was incapable of rising to the height of master ship. Even a retrospective artist is, however, up to a certain point, limited to the artistic tendencies of his own time. Van der Weyden was often obedient to the stylistic demands of the new naturalism. He had to struggle to achieve a certain lifelikeness of effect, which in his works, is not an essential factor as it is in the works of Robert Campin and van Eyck. This is why fifteenth century painters outside the Netherlands, especially the Germans Spaniards, and French, became familiar with the new Flemish realism through the works of the most naturalistic of all old Netherlandish masters’.
Rogier’s influence goes into breadth. His contribution consists of ‘ideas, types, themes, joy and the sound of music on the one hand, dramatic tension and moral grandeur on the other’.
Ludwig Baldass, Jan van Eyck, Phaidon Publishers Inc., New York, 1952
Jan Bialostocki, Sztuka cenniejsza niz zloto, Tom 1., Panstwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, Warszawa 1991;
Adam Bochnak, Historia Sztuki Nowozytnej, Tom 1., Panstwowe Wydawnictow Naukowe, Warszawa Krakow 1985;
Davies M., Netherlandish Primitives: Rogier van der Weyden and Robert Campin, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 71, No. 141 (Sep., 1937), pp. 140-145,
Valentin Denis, All the Paintings of Jan Van Eyck, Vol. IV in the Complete Library of World Art, Oldbourne Press, London 1961;
Brian Fallon, Van Eyck, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 71. No. 284 (Winter 1982), pp. 360-377;
Max Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, Vol. I, The Van Eycks – Petrus Christus, A.W. Sijthoff, Leyden 1967;
Max Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, From Van Eyck to Bruegel, Phaidon Press Ltd., London 1956;
Davies M., Rogier van der Weyden. An essay with a critical catalogue of paintings assigned to him and to Robert Campin, Phaidon Press Ltd., London 1972;
Susie Nash, Northern Renaissance Art, Oxford University Press, 2008
Wauters A.J., Rogier van der Weyden – I, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 22, No. 116 (Nov., 1912), pp. 75-82;