‘a magnificently wrought picture…a most pious image’

On 7 March 2016, Dr Gabriele Finaldi (Director, National Gallery, London) gave a talk entitled Rogier van der Weyden and the encounter between faith and art as part of our BSR at the British Academy lecture series.

Rogier van der WeydenSaint Luke drawing the Virgin, c. 1435-40Oil on panel, 137.5 x 110.8 cmBoston, Museum of Fine Arts

Rogier van der Weyden, St Luke Drawing the Virgin, c. 1435-40, oil on panel, 137.5 x 110.8 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

‘As part of the British Academy’s season of lectures and events on faith, we were delighted to invite Dr Gabriele Finaldi, co-curator of the National Gallery’s millennium exhibition Seeing Salvation: The Image of Christ. Gabriele — then still at the Prado — kindly said yes. I was intrigued to learn that he intended to speak to us about Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400–64) — the great Early Netherlandish master — but knew him well enough to be reassured there would be good reason.

Upon taking the stage on 7 March, Gabriele (now of course Director of the National Gallery) confessed that the most Italian thing about his talk would be his own name. The packed room (we were, understandably, oversubscribed) laughed. But this was not true, as he explained that the great Burgundian court painter enjoyed great fame in Italy in his lifetime. Quoting Rogier’s contemporary Cyriacus of Ancona, who had been shown the artist’s work by Leonello d’Este, we were asked to focus on his descriptions: ‘magnificently wrought’ and ‘a most pious image’. We were then helped, with these two descriptive lenses to hand, to look very closely at some of Rogier’s key paintings, and to understand why Italy was in thrall to this northern artist.

Gabriele focused our gaze first on the composition of the paintings, then on their intricate details, reminding us of both the importance of the liturgical or scriptural accuracy of what we were seeing and the artistic innovation displayed by Rogier. Our close looking at masterpieces, combined with the speaker’s words, rewarded us: the delicate metalpoint drawing of the Virgin in St Luke Drawing the Virgin (MFA, Boston); the playful Christ child in the Durán Madonna (Prado, Madrid) grabbing the book held by his mother; the intense devotional contemplation in The Magdalen Reading (National Gallery, London); and the cleverly composed liturgical narrative in The Seven Sacraments (KMSKA, Antwerp).

The Prado’s jewel, The Descent from the Cross, provided arguably the most dramatic impact. The device of compressing the scene within its compositional frame immediately lends a discomfort to the viewer, but it is the virtuosity of the finish and the emotion of each figure which help convey such a vivid sense of pathos. The final image in Gabriele’s talk was the Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John (Escorial, Madrid), possibly the artist’s final work, which is not only a stunning painting but also a marvel of careful conservation.

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross, before 1443, oil on panel, 220.5 x 259.5 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, deposited by the Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid.

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross, before 1443, oil on panel, 220.5 x 259.5 cm,
Museo Nacional del Prado, deposited by the Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid.

The BSR has a proud tradition of scholarship on the relationship between northern European culture and Italy, and this paper was a perfect complement to the careful scholarship of, for instance, Dr Sue Russell (BSR Assistant Director) on Herman van Swanevelt, or Austėja Mackelaitė (Rome Scholar 2014-15) on Marten van Heemskerck — and we could list many more. The lecture encouraged us to look closely and to think about what we were seeing, how it reflected contemporary religious belief and in what ways it might have influenced later artists. In viewing these magnificently wrought pictures, these most pious images, we were connected with the most universal emotions, with humanity itself.  It was a triumphant occasion and a worthy contribution to the BA’s series.’

Rogier van der Weyden, The Crucifixion, c. 1457-64, oil on panel, 323.5 x 192 cm, Patrimonio Nacional, Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial, Madrid.

Rogier van der Weyden, Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John, c. 1457-64, oil on panel, 323.5 x 192 cm, Patrimonio Nacional, Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial, Madrid.

Elizabeth Rabineau (Development Director)

 

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