Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution 
edited by Till-Holger Borchert, Jan Dumolyn and Maximiliaan Martens.
Thames & Hudson, 490 pp., £60, February, 978 0 500 02345 7
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Arook​ alights on the turret of a four-storey townhouse, wings braking and feet outstretched to land. The blackbird already perched there stands his ground. Two rooks on another turret watch a fifth bird swoop off to the roofs beyond, while high and far above them in the pale morning sky, a kestrel wheels over the gables and pinnacles, seeing what I cannot, the countryside beyond the half-visible town gate. And then, to the right of the mullion in the second-floor window through which all this appears, a V of geese flies north-west, and that must be a stork, its wings stretched wide above the mansion across the street.

To count how many tiny bird silhouettes Jan Van Eyck painted in this thirty centimetre span of skyline would be to row against the stream: the whole drift of his picture is that there will always be more. The world seen through this window flows outwards and spreads, percolating into countless particulars. Yet at each stage the entities keep their character. The streetscape – probably a composite rather than a single observed view, if Van Eyck was doing things in his usual way – retains an overall Ghent-ness, as is fitting for a panel intended for a chapel in one of the city’s main churches. Each house, however, has its own life: there’s a roof that needs retiling, and painted over the door of that mansion is a fading St Christopher. A further scale down, inhabitants appear: the finely dressed know-all, five millimetres high, who leans out from the window next to the mansion door, wisecracking to a friend; or the madam and client – perhaps – below the nearest downspout. I think he would like me to imagine the meadows beyond the town walls, even if he can’t show them.

The thought is foolish, because I have been describing a small band of brushwork more than halfway up a tall panel, most of which shows the bare rafters and floor tiles of the room that this view punctuates, and because this panel, within the scheme of the Ghent Altarpiece, stands on the shoulders of another slightly taller panel, so that the details would always have been far too high to allow a close-up view. The irreverent question arises: why did he bother? A pious answer might compare his unerringly aimed tiny globs of pigment – kestrel, burgher, spout – to those delicate carvings masons are said to have added to cathedral spires for God’s eyes alone. And there is no reason to exclude such an answer: Van Eyck’s art seems to breathe religion, and he probably did look up from his handiwork with just such hopes. Even so, given that he had an order to complete, the excess effort prompts you to wonder what training he brought to it.

The evidence suggests that the 24 panels of the Ghent Altarpiece were not so much a job that Van Eyck pitched for as one he was landed with. Joos Vijd and Lysbette Borluut, the elderly grandees portrayed on two of the panels, had commissioned it for their city church from his older brother, but Hubert Van Eyck (whose other work is lost) died in the project’s early stages, leaving Jan with six years of effort before the polyptych was presented in public in 1432. What had Jan (whose age at that point is uncertain: early forties, perhaps) been up to before taking on this task? Miniatures, you might deduce, and indeed, there are a few sheets, probably from the 1420s, that are likely his. The way the tempera is caked on these, however, seems to betray someone more used to the up-and-coming medium of oil paint who was trying his hand at illumination. Attempts to probe further hit a blank: the evidence of Van Eyck’s development must have been destroyed in the Protestant iconoclasms that convulsed Flanders in 1566. We can, however, infer that panelled altarpieces had been becoming increasingly popular in the region since the late 14th century; the Van Eycks had forebears and colleagues involved in this production line, such as Robert Campin, who also embraced oil paint. Captivated by pictorial exports from Siena, Flemings were now keen to commission works that stood halfway between the public arrays of stone-carved saints and the little pictures in books meant for private enjoyment – spectacles that could encourage people not only to pray but to dream and to smile.

The altarpiece plan that Vijd, Borluut and their theology consultant devised with Hubert was hubristic even in its dimensions: they wanted this fashionable format to fill the chapel that would be dedicated to their memory. When Van Eyck delivered the work, it was recognised that its quality was also without equal, a judgment that remains irrefutable. It’s the superabundance that staggers. You zoom out from the townscape to the four-panel wide Annunciation that encapsulates it, but that scene is merely a prelude, painted on the exterior panels of the doors, to the two-level panoply within: theological VIPs above, and below, an early morning mass meeting of the blessed in some verdant parkland. The lush heaviness into which your eyes sink suggests that whatever breathes or glistens or crinkles – clouds, foliage, faces, cloaks, jewels, metalware and stone – has been stroked and befriended by brushwork of infinite patience: all is celebrated but decelerated, as if you are witnessing the creation of the world replayed in slow motion. You can zoom out again, and the painting still holds – Van Eyck is an able organiser of greens and reds and golds across the entire array, and his forms stay lucid at every level – but the gear changes of the ensemble keep inviting you to zoom in. I get the sense here of a painter inclined to intimacy, pushed to his limits of scale.

The Ghent Alterpiece

The great masterpiece is distinctly hard to get to grips with, face to face, and must long have been so, cramped in its tight little chapel at St Bavo’s Cathedral, even before the present security vitrine surrounded it. A rolling conservation project, however, has provided opportunities to inspect at closer quarters the panels that have been temporarily removed. Some of them – including the townscape – were included in Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution at Ghent’s Museum voor Schone Kunsten. The exhibition has had to shut early, but you can still inspect the imagery in microscopic detail via the website What you lose in theological coherence, you gain in ontological surprise. To find yourself face to face, for instance, with the naked right leg of the father of the human race is to realise how a knee might constitute a geography never before mapped. The Adam of this panel – meant to stand in the interior of the polyptych, back to back with the townscape on its exterior – is a pale, earnest, gawky fellow, appropriately thin-armed (he’s only just fallen, and so the curse of work still awaits), rendered slightly smaller than life-size and made to stand in a niche, like a statue turned flesh. The intelligence scrutinising him is at once angelically competent and struck with a discoverer’s astonishment. It fixes on an outcrop of variously tinted bumps and ruckles, and understands that, somewhere beneath, lies a mechanism that bends legs; yet it holds that functional analysis in suspense. What is more wonderful is the way attention and illumination are half reflected, half absorbed by the strange warm porousness of the skin on this knee – and the way the skin sprouts hairs. Eve is not studied from life as Adam is, but she is still enlivened by the stray strands of hair tickling her shoulders and by the fullness of her bush.

In the ten panels from the altarpiece on display at the exhibition, and the other panels of Van Eyck’s that joined them (roughly half of his agreed extant work), there are countless points of access to the praise-singing and world-loving tenor of Van Eyck’s art: the manner in which an incomparable force of hand, mind and eye has asserted that whatever is, is good. I was equally amazed by the way that in a small panel from Turin, St Francis Receiving the Stigmata, he interpreted the limestone rockface before which the saint kneels in the manner you might expect of a 19th-century geologist – as a unique material record of stresses, fossilisations and erosions that occurred across time. We know of no one in Europe who saw things in quite this way before him, just as no successor was able to record the flights of birds with matching accuracy, allowing the viewer to distinguish each species – until the high-speed shutter came along. And so the times of day that he favours – from the hour before dawn to the 10 a.m. of that city view, a period during which forms become ever clearer but nothing glares – take on, inescapably, a retrospective loading. Van Eyck’s art is a sunrise in Western painting and was recognised as such soon after his death in 1441.

Are we able, however, to turn these deferences into concrete statements? How, for a start, were Van Eycks made? In a sense, that can be simply answered. It helps that one autograph silverpoint drawing survives – a study for a portrait, with scribbled memos about colouring – as well as a brush-drawn panel of St Barbara on which colouring was begun but left unfinished (the latter was in the show, the former wasn’t). All you have to do, it seems, is draw contours of immaculate finesse: gently accentuate the form with hatching; then progressively apply glazes, sometimes slipping a white lead highlight between them, with the result that the gamut of tones keeps expanding. Tiny beads of impasto generate texture. Here, oil paint discloses its fresh new radiance and depth, but nakedly so – there’s no inscrutable wizardry of the sort found in later practitioners such as Velázquez or Chardin.

Jan van Eyck is reasonably well documented for a painter of his era, even if we don’t know his birthdate. What the ledgers suggest, his portraiture fleshes out: a craft specialist from small-town Flanders who rose by his wits to society’s second floor, moving among the mandarins who served the region’s ruler and leaving the guild members down below. The little ‘souvenir’ panels on show in Ghent presented five fellow movers in this world, the jauntiest a goldsmith; the steeliest Margaret, Van Eyck’s wife, who would inherit the townhouse in Bruges. These shrewd operators gathered around the flash and clever Philip, Duke of Burgundy, who was quashing a tradespeople’s revolt in Ghent the year the altarpiece was installed. Despite this, it seems to have been an environment in which artistry and erudition were brought to the fore, and violence and machismo kept distant. The Crucifixion scenes from Van Eyck’s workshop record an unfortunate incident rather than an agonising trauma. It was to a woman, after all, that worshippers chiefly addressed their prayers: the Virgin of so many Annunciations, the Madonna, to whom Van Eyck gives gold tresses.

The exhibition in Ghent gave you a window onto this world, indeed no glass was ever clearer, but you hardly saw the man who cleaned it. Man in a Red Turban, the panel that must be Van Eyck’s self-portrait, stayed in London (along with the Arnolfini Portrait). The man who wrote the motto on its frame, ‘Als Ich Can’ – or ‘Here’s what I [‘Eyck’] can do’ – springs to life briefly in the duchy’s account books two years after the success of the altarpiece: the duke was annoying his bursar by requesting extra cash to retain the services of a mercenary celebrity artist who was happy to take them elsewhere. But Van Eyck never to our knowledge portrayed the duke, and his services seem to have been chiefly diplomatic. In his 16 years as valet to this major player in European politics, he was repeatedly sent off on ‘voiages secréz et lointains’, so often that it is hard to fathom how he found time to paint work of such astounding quality.

In one of the catalogue essays, Maximiliaan Martens, who co-curated the exhibition, puts forward some useful suggestions for how to characterise that quality with a degree of historical precision. Van Eyck’s new morning for painting was, he argues, the project of an artist aware that the sun had risen before – an entirely deliberate ‘renaissance’. He focused on nature in all its specificity and on illusionistic effects not simply because there were already artists in Flanders inclined to this aesthetic whom he wanted to beat at their own game, but because he was inspired by an ancient text that articulated those values. Van Eyck is described by the Italian humanist Bartolommeo Fazio as having been well acquainted with Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, a compendious survey of nature and every human use of it. Pliny particularly commends those artists who cleave closest to nature, achieving a veri similitudo, a resemblance to the real. Philip of Burgundy liked to align his own image with that of Alexander the Great: it befell his servant, therefore, to become Apelles, the world-conqueror’s court painter, whose horses were so lifelike that they caused real horses to whinny, and portraits so precise that doctors could tell the sitters’ ailments.

If we use Pliny to think about Van Eyck, some parts of his work that might otherwise baffle us move into focus. The Ghent exhibition devoted a section to his grisaille trompe-l’oeils of alabaster carvings, both from the big altarpiece and, to still more eye-boggling effect, from an Annunciation diptych for a private altar from Madrid. Behind my initial feeling that Van Eyck’s outmanoeuvrings of his sculptor colleagues were too arty by half lay a Romantic prejudice that a painter so good at the natural should produce work that is simple and sincere. But in the eyes of the 15th-century Burgundian court, art and nature – what humans have made and what God has made – had a different relation. Work that directly simulated nature was good art. Work that wrapped itself doubly around nature – simulating another’s simulation – might be even better art, because there was no such thing as too much artfulness. There is a confident wit to the Van Eyck who plays the connoisseur, ventriloquising the artistic styles of previous centuries, as in the Annunciation from Washington, set in a church interior and lushly coloured. He is so imperiously sure of himself.

While he uses Pliny’s Apelles to illumine Van Eyck’s aesthetic, Martens is well aware that a story in an old text is an insufficient basis for a studio practice. He asks how Van Eyck managed to align the highlights and reflections in every one of the hundreds of jewels depicted in the Ghent Altarpiece, so that each seems exactly to catch the light that would have come through the chapel window – one even reflects its traceries. Working from ‘direct visual observation’, he argues, would hardly have been feasible. A more recent guide than Pliny could, he says, have been to hand in Flemish libraries: the 11th-century Optics of Alhazen, available in an abridged Latin version. The Arab scientist distinguished three geometries by which light reaches our eyes: by straight lines from its source; by ricochets, bounced off mirrors; or bent at oblique angles as it switches from one medium to another, such as from water to air. Alhazen was able to outline predictive models for each form of behaviour, and Van Eyck would have used these guidelines in his extravaganzas of glitter.

That bling in the altarpiece’s upper register belongs to heavenly persons, and Martens explains that Christian theologians aligned Alhazen’s tripartite optics with the three ways to apprehend the divine: Van Eyck is here giving us the full vision. Alhazen’s straight-line geometry was used by Brunelleschi and others to devise the new pictorial stratagem of ‘artificial perspective’, an innovation that almost coincided with those of Van Eyck. This is the way Martens brings together his case:

The Italian Renaissance reduced the multifaceted complexity of late medieval optics, which consisted of direct observation, reflection and refraction, to the first aspect alone: direct viewing, as if through a window. Jan Van Eyck, by contrast, introduced optical complexity to Northern painting, including the metaphysical stratification that the scholastics bestowed upon it. This is without doubt the most important characteristic of Van Eyck’s optical revolution.

‘An Optical Revolution’ was the subtitle of the exhibition in Ghent: 23 Van Eycks (including a couple of illuminations, but not counting workshop products) kept company with many panels and drawings by other hands, not to mention stone carvings, manuscripts, metalwork, videos and a vast, sumptuous tapestry. The description felt ill-applied. To present viewers with a revolution, you surely have to show them not only the world after the Bastille has fallen – most of the contextual items in the exhibition were from the mid-15th century – but provide them with at least a glimpse of the Ancien Régime. Rather than tracking down what remains of Van Eyck’s forerunners – Melchior Broederlam, for instance, a Fleming who seems to have led the way when it came to panel painting in oils – the curators instead got Van Eyck’s fan club to do the cheerleading, filling a prefatory gallery with dull homages from later centuries. A smarter notion was to demonstrate, with contrasting or complementary exhibits, the Italy v. the North antithesis that Martens stakes out above. The art-historical trope may be hackneyed, it may bristle with point-scoring, but it sparked to life on the gallery walls.

Fra​ Angelicos look truly strange when set next to Van Eycks. One 1430s predella panel, Scenes from the Life of St Nicholas of Bari, shares distant ancestral assumptions with Van Eyck’s work: both derive from the fondness of painters such as the Lorenzetti brothers a hundred years earlier for juggling figure scales and what’s inside and outside a building. But how searingly abstract is this streetscape of clean green umber walls that know all about space but nothing about time! Angelico has picked up just one notion from the Florentine perspective vogue, but it was a potent one: the thought that vision could have an endpoint. His whole panel pivots not on the titular saint in his pulpit, but on a central open doorway that is completely dark, a fathomless void – except for an unknown somebody, electrifyingly half-glimpsed within. The frisson that this detail emits is so utterly counter to everything Van Eyck is about that it helps us to see the latter’s art more sharply.

‘Minus’, we realise, is always waiting to fight it out with ‘plus’. Minus moves faster, perhaps looks finer, perhaps proves stronger. Few of those invited by the curators to compare the Annunciation by Van Eyck from the National Gallery of Art in Washington with Domenico Veneziano’s treatment of the same theme will have preferred the plum-pudding repletion of the former to the latter’s bracing minimalism. But the tussle goes both ways. The curators also placed Fra Angelico’s St Francis Receiving the Stigmata with Van Eyck’s treatment of that theme. Angelico’s design of near Futurist stridency screeches at Van Eyck’s harmony of browns, featuring that fossil-rich limestone, an entrancing distant city and lake, and some friend asked to play-act the saint.

This fellow, whoever he is, has a sophisticated steadiness. He bears many things in mind but none intolerably perturbs him, nor is he ruffled by the drone from heaven that hovers before his eyes, or for that matter by the red liquid that is dripping from his hands and from his bizarrely positioned feet. Pain and emotion are rendered peripheral: all manner of things are being made visible. What a distinctive take on Christianity – or should that be on the Franciscan love for creation? – he delivered. Who, we might ask, is Van Eyck’s central VIP up there on the Ghent altarpiece? Is it Jesus wearing a very grand hat? Is it God himself, hubristically simulated by the painter who has recapitulated his act of creation? Confronted by the subject’s inscrutable but unengaging gaze, no commentator has seemed able to settle the question for good. The divinity in whom Van Eyck places his trust, however, sits at the right hand of that figure: Mary, with the golden hair.

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