jan van eyck
Compilation of the exhibition
Maximiliaan Martens, Till-Holger Borchert, Jan Dumolyn, Johan De Smet en Frederica Van Dam, with the cooperation of Matthias Depoorter
A first peek…
The exhibition in 2020 brings around 80 late medieval works to Ghent. Painting, miniature art, sculpture and drawings are placed next to and opposite each other to bring the medieval world of Van Eyck to life. For this the MSK works in close collaboration with (inter)national partners. We are already highlighting the veil here, with a few eye-catching loans. In the coming months, keep an eye on the website for more news!
Even though it may be assumed – given the demand and fashion – that he produced a number of triptychs, only the Dresden altarpiece survives, although a number of extant portraits may be wings of dismantled polyptychs. Tell-tale signs are hinges on original frames, the sitter’s orientation, and praying hands or the inclusion of iconographical elements in an otherwise seemingly secular portrait. 
A better documented commission was the journey to Lisbon along with a group intended to prepare the ground for the Duke’s wedding to Isabella of Portugal. Van Eyck’s was tasked with painting the bride, so that the Duke could visualise her before their marriage. Because Portugal was ridden with plague, their court was itinerant and the Dutch party met them at the out of the way castle of Avis. Van Eyck spent nine months there, returning to the Netherlands with Isabella as a bride to be; the couple married on Christmas Day of 1429.  The princess was probably not particularly attractive, and that is exactly how Van Eyck conveyed her in the now lost portrait. Typically he showed his sitters as dignified, yet did not hide their imperfections.  After his return, he was preoccupied with completing the Ghent Altarpiece, which was consecrated on 6 May 1432 at Saint Bavo Cathedral during an official ceremony for Philip. Records from 1437 say that he was held in high esteem by the upper ranks of Burgundian nobility and was employed in foreign commissions.
Drawing on Oak Panel – Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium
In 1934, art historian and iconologist Erwin Panofsky set the stage for decades of debate when he put forth the theory that this painting depicted the vows of a marriage ceremony between the wealthy Arnolfini and his young wife. According to Panofsky’s theory of “disguised symbolism” every object in the scene was laden with iconographic significance. The notion of a “disguise” was not meant to infer that the meaning was hidden from its contemporary viewers. Quite the opposite, it was expected they would understand the double-entendre of the imagery, but that in place of traditional or classical symbolism, the artist employed everyday objects to illustrate meanings based on commonly held knowledge of certain metaphors. The small dog, for example, was not a beloved pet but a symbol of fidelity, and quite fitting for what the historian believed was a marriage scene. Additional images to support the notion of a marriage include the single burning candle in the hanging candelabra symbolizing the presence of God at this sacred event, the man’s cast aside clogs indicate that this event is taking place on holy ground, while the oranges on the chest under the window may refer to fertility. Although Panofsky found it was not required by canon law for a priest to perform a wedding, it was required for the event to have witnesses, which van Eyck provides in this portrait. Against the back wall of the room, there is a small convex mirror reflecting the back of the couple and two individuals who appear to watch the ceremony, one who appears to wear an elaborate red turban, or chaperon. On the wall above the mirror the artist has written an inscription in elaborate script that says “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic 1434” (Jan van Eyck was here in 1434). This marks the only known example where the artist’s signature was on the actual painting rather than the picture frame. The elaborate red turban in the reflection, along with the distinctive signature, leads many to believe it is van Eyck in the mirror.
Apart from the Ghent Altarpiece and the illuminated miniatures of the Turin-Milan Hours, about 20 surviving paintings are confidently attributed to him, all dated between 1432 and 1439. Ten, including the Ghent altarpiece, are dated and signed with a variation of his motto, ALS IK KAN (As I (Eyck) can) always written in Greek characters, always a pun on his name.
Van Eyck painted both secular and religious subject matter, including altarpieces, single panel religious figures and commissioned portraits. His work includes single panels, diptychs, triptychs, and polyptych panels. He was well paid by Philip, who sought that the painter was secure financially and had artistic freedom and could paint “whenever he pleased”. Van Eyck’s work comes from the International Gothic style, but he soon eclipsed it, in part through a greater emphasis on naturalism and realism. Through his developments in the use of oil paint he achieved a new level of virtuosity. Van Eyck was highly influential and his techniques and style were adopted and refined by the Early Netherlandish painters.
Jan van Eyck was born in the small town of Maaseyck, then known as Eyck, near a bend of the river Maas about 14 miles from Maastricht, the provincial capital of modern-day Limburg. The history of the region can be traced back to the Roman Empire era, and later grew into a religious center during the early medieval period. Notably, the nearby district of Aldeneik traces its history back to the early eighth century, with the founding of the Aldeneik Abbey by two sisters from a noble landowning family who had been educated at a Benedictine Abbey in Valenciennes.
Although van Eyck is considered among the greatest masters of European art history, continued debate around the biography of the artist and even the authorship of some of his works abounds. The few works attributed as van Eyck’s earliest paintings are among those works in contention. The best-known examples are the miniatures in the Turin-Milan Book of Hours, an illuminated manuscript with an astonishing history of its own. The book was commissioned c. 1380, soon thereafter the most famous section of the book, Tres Belles Heures de Nortre Dame painted by Jean d’OrlГ©ans, Maelwael brothers, and Limbourg Brothers was produced under the commission of Jean, duc du Berry, whom FriedlГ¤nder describes as “a passionate bibliophile.” The book came into the possession of John of Bavaria, aka “John III the Pitiless, Count of Holland and Hainaut,” in the early 1420s around the same time Jan van Eyck came into his service, leading scholars to believe that a selection of illuminations created by an anonymous artist, known simply as “Hand G,” were created by the hand of Jan van Eyck. In addition, “Hand H” is theorized to demonstrate the work of Hubert van Eyck. The book later came into the possession of Philip the Good, leading to further speculation of the artist’s involvement. Lacking specific documentation, and with the added misfortune of a fire in 1904 that destroyed much of the prayer book in question, leaves these attributions far from certain.