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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Petrus Christus

Goldsmith in His Shop, 1449, Petrus Christus. The goldsmith is sometimes identified as St. Eligius, the patron saint of goldsmiths.
As artists, we take linear perspective for granted. Mastering such a highly logical lesson in draftsmanship is much the same as memorizing the periodic table for a physicist, or for a surgeon, cauterizing a bleeding blood vessel. Even the advent of digital drawing has hardly lessened the need for a basic understanding of the rendering of three-dimensional depth on a two-dimensional surface. We find it hard to imagine a time when artists knew little or nothing of such skills. Even during the 15th-century when, Early Renaissance artists began to suspect that rendering an illusion of depth in their work was governed by an interrelated set of rules, they tended to apply them more by instinct than understanding, and haphazardly at that. In fact, in some parts of Europe, "trial and error" perspective lingered well into the 17th-century.
Lamentation, c. 1455-60, Petrus Christus.
Around 1413 a contemporary of Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, demonstrated the geometrical method of perspective, used today by artists. For some years it remained kind of a Florentine "trade secret." Even the great Flemish painter, Jan van Eyck, was unable to create a consistent structure for the converging lines in paintings, as in his The Arnolfini Portrait. He was unaware of the theoretical breakthrough just then occurring in Italy. However he achieved very subtle effects by manipulations of scale in his interiors. Gradually, and partly through the development of art academies, the Italian techniques became part of the training of artists across Europe; and later other parts of the world. With the death of van Eyck in 1441, it is thought that an artist named Petrus Christus took over his master's workshop in Bruges, (now located in Belgium).
The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints Jerome
and Francis, 1458, Petrus Christus
Insofar as portraits were concerned, Christus was no van Eyck. His male heads in St. Eligius in His Workshop (top), show a penchant for rendering both eyes approximately identical in size and shape, thus distorting the shape of the cheekbones and upper part of the head (this error persists even today among amateur artists). It's unknown if Christus traveled to Italy at some point, or if linear perspective filtered north to his workshop, but Petrus Christus is credited by most art historians as having brought an understanding of the rules of perspective to the Netherlandish artists of the Northern Renaissance about 1450. It's hard to pinpoint an exact date for such a breakthrough, though we can see it suddenly appear in his works such as The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints Jerome and Francis, (above) which is said to date from 1458. Therein lies the problem. Such dates are very arbitrary.
Madonna and Child, ca. 1450, Petrus Christus
However, in Christus' Madonna and Child (above), which is believed to date from slightly earlier (around 1450), we see a rather complete demonstration of the rules of one-point perspective even in the oval rendering of round shapes (the window, arches, and chandelier). Just as perplexing, insofar as dates are concerned, is a Nativity by Christus (below) which may have been done as early as 1447.

Nativity, 1447, Petrus Christus. Recent restoration work has suggested Christus may have worked on the painting as late as 1460. The perspective is quite rudimentary which would tend to indicate the earlier date as to when it was begun.
The altarpiece (below) is said to date from 1452 (a probable third panel may be missing). In it, Christus employ's linear perspective only in the upper left panel depicting the Annunciation. Tracing the orthogonals in the painting reveals them to be inconsistent, at best, which would suggest that as of 1452 (if that date is accurate) Christus was still struggling with the rules.

(Left panel) Annunciation and Nativity, (right panel) The Last Judgement, 1452, Petrus Christus.
The problem in dealing with Petrus Christus comes down to the fact that he was an anonymous figure for several centuries, his importance not established until the work of modern art historians. Giorgio Vasari barely mentions him in his biographies of painters, written during the Renaissance, while near contemporary records merely list him among many other Netherlandish artists. In fact the first firm date associated with Christus is 1844 when he purchases his citizenship in Bruges so he might work there as an artist. Long seen only in his predecessor's shadow, more recent indications are that he was an independent painter whose work shows as much influence from, Dirk Bouts, Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden. Even Christus' date of birth is uncertain (1410 to 1420). He died in 1473...or 1476.

Portrait of a Young Girl, ca. 1470, Petrus Christus.
The stamp dates from 1974.

More on Petrus Christus by art historian, Dr. Vida Hull.

Warning: This may be more than you really want to know about the man, the video is over an hour long.

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