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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Rogier van der Weyden

The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning
ca. 1460, Rogier van der Weyden
As I gets older the Random Access Memory (RAM) inside my brain seems to lose a few megabytes each year. Sometimes each night as I write in my word-processed journal I find I have to go back and look up whom (or what) it was I wrote about that day, often after having just finished a few hours before. Albert Einstein said it best when asked his phone number, "I never remember anything I can look up." He's also said to have added, "I don't call myself very often." Of course, with computers and today's Web browsers, there's very little one can't look up in just a few seconds. It would seem I've allowed my mental RAM to deteriorate in lieu of the multiple gigabytes of electronic RAM at my fingertips. Actually, scientists claim this type of mental activity combats such deterioration. In any case, today, as I was going through a list of possible artists about whom to write, I came across the name of the famous Netherlandish artist, Rogier van der Weyden. My first thought was that, oh, I've already written about him. But, just to be sure, I did a search of this site and, it seems, I've referred to him several times in covering various other themes, artists, and eras, but that I'd never actually done a biographical piece on the man. Since about half of what I write is biographical, I found myself wondering how I'd missed him earlier. The only possibility was that I need to invest in some additional RAM.

Rogier van der Weyden (left) 1572, Cornelis Cort,
Van der Weyden's birth goes way back to 1399 or 1400. Like most of the facts about the artist's early life, even his birth date is a bit "shaky." Many such records were lost during the Siege of Brussels in 1695 and during the Second World War. Thus the history of men's lives has had to be reconstructed through circum-stantial evidence (diaries, dates on paintings, old letters, that sort of thing). Unfor-tunately, in many cases, such time consuming detective work is simply not worth the effort. That's not the case with van der Weyden, but nonetheless, his background remains sketchy. We have only one etched portrait (above-left) to suggest what he may have looked like and a somewhat dissimilar self-portrait (above-right) of dubious attribution.

Calvary or Crucifixion (above-left) 1457-1464. The Crucifixion Triptych (above-right), 1443-45. The Abegg Triptych (above, lower-right), Rogier van der Weyden
Van der Weyden's surviving works are mostly religious triptychs, altarpieces, and commissioned single portraits. Perhaps one reason I'd not written about this artist before stems from the fact that his life was generally uneventful. He was highly successful and internationally famous in his lifetime. His paintings found their way to Italy and Spain, from whence he received commissions from, such historic figures as Philip the Good, Netherlandish nobility, and foreign princes. During the latter half of the 15th century, he surpassed Jan van Eyck in popularity. However his fame lasted only until the 17th century. Largely due to changing taste, he was nearly forgotten by the mid-18th century. Fortunately, van der Weyden's reputation has slowly rebounded during the past 200 years. Today he is ranked with Robert Campin and the van Eyck brothers, as the third (by birth date) of the three great Early Flemish artists and widely regarded as the most influential Northern Renaissance painter of the 15th century.

I've grouped lamentations and depositions together in that they're often very
similar in composition, and appearance.
The earliest painting that can be ascribed to Rogier van der Weyden is also his greatest and most influential extant work, The Deposition (top-right). It was likely painted between 1435, and 1443, the date of the earliest copy. The Deposition was an altarpiece, intended for the Chapel of the Confraternity of the Archers of Leuven, who commissioned it. At that time The Deposition formed the center of a triptych, but there is no indication that the side wings were originally part of the work, it is more likely that the Deposition was originally a single panel. At about 2.2 meters high and 2.6 meters wide, the painting is quite large as such altarpieces go. Beyond it size thought, in terms of its concept, it is truly monumental. A total of ten figures cover the painted surface almost entirely, with their heads close to the upper edge of the panel. The body of Jesus has already been removed from the Cross, and is received by two elderly men, the bearded Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus. Surrounded by Jesus' mourning friends they are holding His dead body for a moment before setting it down. Mary is sinking to the ground in a faint beside her son, and is supported by John, the favorite disciple of Jesus, and by one of the holy women. On the extreme right, the despairing Mary Magdalene seems about to collapse. The scene would have lasted more than a moment, but there is nothing momentary about its depiction, which is quite detached from the historical event.

The Annunciation (top) is from 1440. The two lower panels are depict the annunciation but are from other altarpieces.
The central scene of The Annunciation (top image, above) is set in a luxurious interior, depicted with convincing spatial feeling. The white lilies and glass carafe symbolize the purity of Mary. The donor in the left-hand wing was later painted over rather ineptly. The right-hand wing depicts The Visitation. Known as the Louvre Annunciation, it is the central panel of a triptych the wings of which are most probably not the work of van der Weyden. Its style is quite different from that of the Descent from the Cross and shows closer ties to the work of Jan Van Eyck. It even reproduces certain details familiar to us from The Arnolfini Marriage.

The Pierre Bladelin Triptych, (top) 1445-50, and  Polyptych with the Nativity (bottom),
1450, Rogier van der Weyden
Seen alone, the message of the center panel of the Bladelin Triptych (above-top) would be incomplete without the scenes portrayed on the two wings. The three panels together are an allegory of the world dominion of Christ. Tradition has it that, on the day of Christ's birth, a prophetess, the Sibyl of Tibur, showed the Emperor Augustus a vision of the Child and his Mother in the heavens. The Duke of Burgundy, a ruler of the West, falls humbly on his knees, removes his crown, and swings a censer as a token of sacrifice. In the right-hand wing the three kings of the Orient are depicted; deeply moved and fearful, also kneeling before the vision in the heavens. The star of Bethlehem appears in the clouds with the embodiment of the Child, to guide them on their journey.

Charles was the son of Phillip the Good and Isabella of Portugal.
Virtually all the top Netherlandish artists of the 15th century were adept at painting portraits. Rogier van der Weyden was no exception, other than the fact that his subjects were considerably more important than the other noblemen who could afford his services. That's not to say he didn't perhaps suffer a setback or two. The portrait of Charles the Bold on the right was painted in 1460. The portrait of Charles on the left is undated and may represent a rejected first effort. If it had been me, I would have rejected it. The second effort corrects many of the problems seen in the painting on the left and in doing so presents a much more pleasing, attractive royal image (though he doesn't seem very bold). From the looks of the female portraits (below) it would appear van der Weyden preferred to paint the ladies, and in doing so, was much better at it as compared to the Charles the Bold portraits.

It would appear the long noses and elaborate
headdresses were "in" around 1440-60.
As important as the portrait business may have been in keeping the artist and his workshop busy between triptych commissions, a still more dependable and lucrative art commodity was the Madonna and Child business; and van der Weyden, like his Italian counterpart, Raphael, very nearly made a career painting an astounding number of variation to this old theme. I quite easily collected this group of ten and there were at least that many more I rejected for various reasons. Van der Weyden even went to far as to depict Mary nursing her baby, something the Italians would never do.

If some of these look quite similar you can attribute that to the
formulaic rules applied by the master to his workshop apprentices.
Though not as often, van der Weyden sometimes delved into religious myths such as that of St. George Slaying the Dragon or still more ludicrous, that of Luke the physician sketching Mary and her Son, part of her postnatal care I presume. Long thought to have been an artist, St. Luke has become the patron saint of artists. From before the Renaissance up until the early 19th century, the painters' guild was referred to as the Guild of St. Luke.

Besides being the patron saint of artists, not surprisingly, St. Luke is also the patron saint of physicians. St. George is the patron saint of England, which has a long history of dragon problems.


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