Home Magazine Jan Van Eyck, the Master of Ghent...

800 years later, Jan Van Eyck’s art appears to be extraordinary, almost unrepeatable. The secret lies in the impressive realism and tactility of its exquisite details. A new exhibition in Ghent, Belgium - the country of Van Eyck origin - offers an unparalleled opportunity to test the skills of the Flemish Renaissance master. 

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Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man with Blue Chaperon, c. 1428−1430. Muzeul National Brukenthal, Sibiu (Romania)


Have you ever looked at an oil painting by the Flemish master Jan Van Eyck so close to being able to grasp all the realistic minutiae of details? This amazing possibility is now given by “Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution” (Until 30th April 2020), the biggest and the most tangible exhibition ever set up. At the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (MSK), in the heart of East Flanders, the visitor will be astonished by 9 Van Eyck’s artworks, several pieces from his studio and around 100 international paintings, miniatures, sculptures and drawings from the late Middle Ages. Among all these exceptional masterpieces, the artworks of the utmost importance are the eight restored exterior panels of "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" (1432), which the St. Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent loan for the very first time.



From left to right:  Jan and Hubert van Eyck, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432 (exterior panels), Adam and Eve detail,
St Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent | Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation, c. 1434-1436. Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


The panels depicting Adam and Eve caused a scandal in the Eighteenth century due to the brutal nudity of the bodies. Eve’s thin and long arms, stretching along the hips, do not protect the pubis but gently enhance it, while Adam barely covers himself with a fig leaf. Macroscopic and minute features are visible at a distance of a few centimetres and at the eye-level of the viewer: a unique and special chance to admire Van Eyck’s descriptive brush stroke. The legendary figure of Jan Van Eyck is surrounded by an aura of mystery because we know very little about “the first self-taught painter from Northern Europe” - in the words of the curator Maximiliaan P.J. Maartens. Starting from his date of birth (ca. 1390) and apprenticeship. What is certain is that, as a painter of the Burgundian duke Philip the Good (1396-1467), Van Eyck had worked for the flamboyant court and the wealthy inhabitants of cities such as Bruges and Ghent. While Masaccio had just painted the Brancacci Chapel in Florence and Leonardo was yet to born, around 1430, Van Eyck towered above even the greatest contemporaries in terms of sublime technique, scientific precision and the unparalleled capacity of observation.


Jan van Eyck, The Madonna by the Fountain, 1439. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp © lukasweb.be Art in Flanders vzw. Photo Hugo Maertens


In "The Annunciation" (1434-1436), from the National Gallery of Washington, is visible the totally empirical geometry - an invention of Van Eyck very different from the Italian Renaissance mathematical theory of perspective - that materializes in the study of the light. The draping of the fabric, the gemstones, the floor inlay similar to a carpet and the sumptuous brocades are so tangible that they seem to breathe and emanate an intense light. Everything is credible, analytical and dazzling. The seeds of Jan Van Eyck’s optical revolution sprout warmly in "The Annunciation diptych" (1433-1435) -  brought to Ghent thanks to the partnership with Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. The shadow behind the Madonna is formidable! It’s a revelation to ascertain the various fields in which Jan Van Eyck excelled. In the illusionistic representation of the architecture and in rendering the three-dimensionality of sculpture in painting. Not to mention his bewildering, super detailed and factual (wrinkles included), three-quarter portraits of merchants, artisans and even of his wife, Margareta.

Written by Petra Chiodi

Cover image: Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy, c.1435. Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin


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