Jan van Eyck, The Madonna in the Church, c. 1440. Flanders. Oil on oak panel, 31.1cm X 13.9cm. From the Gemäldegalerie Museum in Berlin.

Brief Identification Edit

The Madonna in the Church was discovered in a church in Nantes, France in the mid 1800s by Laborde [See Dhanens 1980, 316].  This painting was later acquired by art collector Suermondt, and now resides in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.  

This painting is attributed to the Flemish Northern Renaissance artist Jan van Eyck, and was painted circa 1440.  It was painted in the style popularized by van Eyck, oil on an oak panel, and is 31.1 cm in length and 12.9 cm in width.  It was originally fashioned as an altarpiece for a church in what appears to be the diptych style, but the second panel is now missing.  Religious images were meant to bring viewers closer to Christ as well as into a sacred realm where they could experience devotion through an image rather than just the written word. 

Technical Evaluation Edit

This work was completed on an oak panel using the oil painting technique that was popularized by van Eyck.  He received a great deal of fame for purportedly inventing oil painting.  However, this technique had been in existence since the 12th century when it appeared in Northern Europe, only becoming popular in the fifteenth century when Northern Renaissance artists like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden adopted this technique [See Jones 2002].  Oil paint is a highly versatile medium, allowing the artists to infuse the painting with rich colors and a sense of reality.  It can be applied either in thick layers or in fine detail because the consistency of the oil allows for various types of brushstrokes [See Jones 2002].  Oil is also a slow drying medium that is able to be modified while still wet, which allows for the different combinations of light and shadow as well as the appearance of different textures in the painting such as the velvet appearance of the Madonna's robe. 

The oil paint medium replaced the previously used egg tempera medium, which was popular in Southern European panel painting [See Jones 2002].  Egg tempera is not as flexible as oil paints, and needs to be constantly refined throughout the painting process.  This medium dries quicker than oil paint, and needs to be applied in thin layers with short brushstrokes [See Jones 2002].  Unlike oil paint, egg tempera dries in a light shade and is useful for capturing bright colors and distinct changes between light and shadow as compared to the rich tones and natural lighting of van Eyck's painting.  The oil painting technique gives the painting a more realistic quality because the image portrayed looks three dimensional as opposed to the flatness of the images that egg tempera creates.

Local Historical ContextEdit

Jan van Eyck lived in the Burgundian Netherlands (1384-1477) that encompassed both the Low Countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) as well as northern France.  Separated from the weakened Papacy  in Rome, the Burgundian Netherlands enjoyed a period of great artistic and cultural achievement despite the territorial expansion and political control that was occurring simultaneously [See Wisse 2002].  The Burgundian Netherlands was ruled by a succession of the Dukes of Burgundy who were descendants of the royal Valois family in France.  The Burgundian court was not sedentary, and enjoyed moving around from its seat in The Hague to places such as Bruges .  This constant relocation spurred artistic patronage from the Court who engaged in both the remodeling and redecorating of their many palaces [See Harbison 1991, 19].  This patronage is what allowed Jan van Eyck to become one of the premiere painters in the Northern Renaissance. 

Jan van Eyck entered court life at The Hague as a court painter, and became dependent on his patron, Duke Phillip the Good, (r. 1419-1467) for his income [See Harbison 1991, 19].  The job of a court painter was to "be available 'to execute paintings whenever the Duke wished him to'" [See Harbison 1991, 19], which classified him as a functionary with no real authority.  His job as a court painter not only included creating paintings for the Duke, but also included things such as designing banquets for the court and other consumable works.  The work of van Eyck became greatly admired at court, and the 100 livres that he was originally paid by the court was increased to a lifetime salary of 360 livres annually [See Dhanens 1980, 40-42].  Not only was van Eyck employed as a court painter, but he also painted several works for other wealthy patrons, such as the Ghent Altarpiece

It is not clear who the intended recipient of The Madonna in the Church was, but it was likely commissioned by a wealthy patron to be displayed in a church, similar to that of the Ghent Altarpiece.  This painting is a devotional image of the Virgin Mary  and Christ Child  in a church, and was likely used for public religious practices within the church [See Ainsworth 2009].  This painting represents "not so much 'a Virgin Mary in a church' as 'the Virgin Mary as The Church'" [See Purtle 1982, 146].  Mary is disproportionately large compared to the Gothic style nave that she is occupying because religious devotees saw Mary as the foundation of the church.  The light that falls on the central figures of the Madonna and Child further highlight their holiness as prominent religious figures in the Christian faith.  The narrowness of the panel and the Madonna's gaze that transcends the boundaries of the painting also suggest that this painting was originally part of a diptych [See Dhanens 1980, 325].  Later copies of this painting by artists such as Jan Gossaert have both wings of the diptych, with a donor kneeling in reverence to the Virgin Mary as she looks on.  The kneeling donor in the diptych also symbolizes the religious practice of kneeling in reverence to the Virgin as well as in prayer. 

World-Historical Significance Edit

The portrayal of religious figures such as the Madonna and Child was prevalent throughout art history.  Depictions of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child are reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian art from the Ptolemaic Period (304-30 BCE) depicting the Goddess Isis nursing her son Horus [See Department of Medieval Art and the Cloisters 2001].  Images of the Madonna and Child persisted throughout history spanning form the Byzantine Empire (330-1453) well into the seventeenth-century and beyond.  Other Madonna and Child paintings such as Italian painter Duccio di Buoninsegna's depiction, (c. 1290-1300) also represents the Madonna as disproportionately large with a small Christ Child reaching up towards Mary.  Italian Renaissance art also focused heavily on religious imagery and depictions of the Madonna such as Raphael's Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints  (c. 1504).  Similar to van Eyck, Raphael used the oil paint technique on wood with a similar color scheme for the Madonna's clothing.  

Jan van Eyck impacted the Northern Renaissance by popularizing oil paints, which allowed the images to appear more realistic.  Oil painting became a highly popular medium in sixteenth-century Europe, sixty years after the death of Jan van Eyck (d. 1441).  This painting, The Madonna in the Church, influenced late fifteenth-century painters to create copies of the work, such as Jan Gossaert's Virgin in the Church paired with Antonio Siciliano and St. Anthony , which can be seen as a way to continue the reverence of tradition [See Hand, Metzger, Spronk 2006,101].  The function of these images was similar across cultures as they were meant to be devotional images of the Virgin and Child used to promote both public and private religious practices as well as revere these religious figures for their contribution to kitson     


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