Jan van Eyck was a master in style and symbolism, establishing a firm superiority in glaze technique and delicately and elaborately applying subtle, yet powerful religious references to what at first glance may seem simple portraits.
Van Eycks drawing, Saint Barbara, completed in 1437, is an example of the artists use of fictional exotic or Romanesque style structures, suggestive of those from the Old Testament. (p.99 textbook) Other symbolism includes the walled city that resembles a ziggurat, and on the church, the three windows on the second level, feature the Trinity, the symbolism of their octagonal structure, and baptism.
Use of religious symbolism can be traced in other Van Eyck works. Madonna in the Church, a panel dating to around 1437-38, uses light to represent Marys purity and purpose. She is the brightness of eternal light and the unspotted mirror of Gods majesty. This was a passage from the Book of Wisdom and can be found inscribed on Marys red dress. (p. 100) Additionally, due to the unusual size of Madonna in her setting, Van Eyck has represented Mary as the church, not simply in the church.
Since Madonna and the Christ child in an ecclesiastical or domestic setting was a favorite theme of Van Eyck, it is possible to note a trend in his work. (p.102 textbook) Madonna and Child with Saints Michael and Catherine, a 1437 panel, depicts Mary once again as the church, but also as the Throne of Christ, the altar of the church, and the seat of the Holy Ghost. Mary is seen on multiple levels of the church.
Technically, Van Eyck was ingenious in his use of glazing. He would apply several coats of glazes with pigments in linseed oil, one over the other, and his final coats of varnish allowing him to build up an enamel like surface that had the depth and translucency of precious gems. (p.100 textbook) In Madonna in the Church, Van Eyck uses small and intricate details as well as his color and light techniques to blend form and symbol.
The Arolfini Wedding Portrait of 1434, a tiny piece representing the marriage of a young, well-off couple, is rich in both religious symbolism and technical skill. The artist placed a certain emphasis on the use of disguised religious symbolism to play up this civil ceremony as a sacrament of the church.
Among the many symbolic references in this work, Van Eyck alluded to the representation of hollowed ground by having the subjects remove their shoes and cover their heads. The shiny, clean mirror and crystalline beads depict the purity of the bride, while the single candle in the chandelier can represent the presence of Christ at the ceremony. The statuette of Saint Margaret can be seen as a reference to the womans role as wife and mother, and the clothing colors (green, blue, and white) are Late Gothic symbols of the affection of a lover, faithfulness, and purity.
The mirror placed in the back of the room exemplifies the exceptional technical skill of the artist. He placed accurate distortions in the reflection, and allowed the viewer to see not just what the painting depicts, but also the witnesses to the ceremony behind the painter, including the artist. The mirror is also religious in purpose. It is surrounded by diminutive medallions in earlier Gothic Style, which focus on ten episodes of the Passion of Christ in iconographic fashion.
Jan Van Eyck was a leader in his time in technical skill and religious symbolism. To this day, he is considered to be one of the most talented painters in history and a leader in the development of new painting techniques.Words
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