Saturday, December 16, 2017

A winding river and a bridge

Jan Van Eyck, The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (detail - full picture below), c. 1435-7
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this year I discussed a miniature in Christopher de Hamel's Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.  Here I want to share a quote from his earlier book, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (1986, revised 1994).  Its subject, way a landscape is transmitted and through successive works of art, is one I have touched on before in connection with Albrecht Dürer.  The way repetition introduces change is something that has fascinated modern artists, from Warhol's screen prints to Basinski's Disintegration Loops, although in this case the alterations are more deliberate.  The quote is quite long but it it conveys what is so appealing about de Hamel's writing, both highly accessible and rigorously scholarly.  (Incidentally, my parents saw him deliver a talk earlier this month, where he described his discovery of what may be the actual book Thomas Becket was carrying when he was assassinated.)  Here, de Hamel is discussing a Paris-based illuminator called the Bedford Master, named for two books he made for the Duke of Bedford, Henry V's brother and regent of France following the victory at Agincourt.  But the story (probably) begins with one of the greatest fifteenth century paintings, Jan van Eyck's The Madonna and Chancellor Rolin, now in the Louvre.

'In the background, seen over the rampart and battlements of a castle, is a marvellous distant view of a winding river and a bridge with people hurrying across and (if one peers closely) a castle on an island and little rowing boats and a landings stage.  It was painted about 1435-7.  The view is now famous as one of the earliest examples of landscape painting.  The Bedford Master must have admired it too, perhaps in Rolin's house where the original was probably kept until it was bequeathed to the church at Autun.  The same landscape was copied almost exactly, even to the little boats and the bends in the river, into the backgrounds of several miniatures from the circle of the Bedford Master such as the former Marquess of Bute MS. 93, fol. 105r, and the mid-fifteenth century Hours of Jean Dunois in the British Library (Yates Thompson MS 3, fol. 162r).  It was adapted slightly for Bedford miniatures such as Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum, MS. Ludwig IX.6, fol. 100r, where the fortified bridge has contracted into part of a castle.  Nicolas Rolin has been transmogrified into David in penance.  In this case, one can assume that Jan Van Eyck had invented the design, unless, of course, he was consciously copying a Bedford Master Book of Hours and was depicting Rolin as penitent.  The scene gets gradually transformed in other manuscripts into the usual view from the palace of King David in the miniature to illustrate the Penitential Psalms in northern France and then in Flanders.  The battlements stay on but the river becomes a lake and then a courtyard (still with little people hurrying to and fro) in the Ghent/Bruges Books of Hours of the sixteenth century.  The Bedford Master's sketch of a detail in a portrait that interested him was transformed remarkably, over a hundred years, as one illuminator after another duplicated and adapted the original pattern.'
The circle of the Bedford Master, Idleness in the Penitential Psalms, mid 15th century

I have found online one of the examples quoted above, the British Library MS, but cannot find images of the others (they are in private collections).  I will end here instead with another painting, less closely copied but still clearly inspired by Van Eyck.  This is Rogier van Der Weyden's wonderful Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, painted just a few years later in around 1440.  The original is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and would be one of the first things I'd head for if I ever get to go there (I can't write this without thinking of Jonathan Richman's song 'Girlfriend'...)  But there are three other versions of it, in Bruges, Munich and St Petersburg.  The figures looking out over the landscape, it's been suggested, refer to the paragone debate, drawing our attention to the ability of painting to convey a vista like this, in a way that sculpture, the art of three dimensions, cannot.  It is as if they are admiring the artistry of Van der Weyden in creating the world they themselves inhabit.  In Van Eyck's painting, the figure looking over the parapet on the right may be the artist himself - the man in the National Gallery's possible-self-portrait is wearing a similar red turban.  In the British Library MS. there is only one man gazing onto the landscape; the second is riding along on a donkey, the personification of idleness with his head in his hand.  But both are wearing versions of Van Eyck's red turban.  

Rogier van Der Weyden, Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, c. 1440
Source: Wikimedia Commons

No comments: