The presentations from last year’s conference are now available to view online.
The presentations from last year’s conference are now available to view online.
There is, of course, a finite amount of fifteenth-century art, but not all of it has remained visible or accessible, and from time to time material emerges that is new to study. I recently came across a fine example in what is, for me, a poignant location.
My father was Polish and I still have family in Upper Silesia. On a recent visit, a cousin gave me a newly-published guidebook to the region and in it I found photos of wall paintings I had never seen. They were uncovered as recently as 2009 in the parish church of the Virgin Mary in Lubecko (the ‘c’ is pronounced ‘ts’) – a village not far from Lubliniec, the nearest significant town to my father’s home where he used to take us shopping on family visits in the 1970s.
The church is celebrated locally as the home of a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary, a painting on a silver medallion, venerated there since the early eighteenth century.
The building’s plain, plastered exterior, shown above on the rainy day of my visit, gives little away, and the interior owes much to a late eighteenth-century rebuild. The newly-discovered paintings loom in the low, dark chancel in what is revealed as an undisturbed part of the late medieval church.
The paintings once covered the entire space above roughly shoulder height and, although very worn and with significant areas of damage, they remain an impressive sight.
Two registers of narrative scenes run along the north and south walls beginning with a short infancy cycle in the upper register to the north, including a well-preserved Nativity and Adoration of the Magi (below).
A Passion cycle must once have begun on the very badly damaged east wall which now also reveals traces of an earlier painting programme. The Passion scenes continue in the top register on the south and continue in the very damaged lower register on the north, culminating in what is now no more than the ghost of a Crucifixion at the eastern end. Post-Resurrection scenes occupy the lower register on the south.
The glory of the scheme, though, is in the vault. Arranged to be viewed from the east and occupying the entire curving surface above the narrative scenes is a Last Judgement. Christ in a mandorla, flanked by the Virgin and St John and encircled by the beasts of the Apocalypse and angels bearing the instruments of the Passion, is accompanied by saints who frame a group of the dead rising from their tombs.
My photo was taken from the entrance to the chancel and is here turned upside down to make the imagery legible. In the comparatively small space the effect is very dramatic indeed.
The technique of these paintings has yet to be studied and whether the dark background is part of the original effect or underpaint for another colour is unclear. As it appears now this scene irresistibly suggests a millefleurs tapestry as if a great swathe of rich fabric had been draped across the chancel with the dead depicted rising in a flowery meadow.
As yet these paintings await integration into a broader history. They have plausibly been placed in the fifteenth century but quite who ordered them and when remain to be explored. For now they stand as a classic art historical challenge.The discovery at Lubecko is a pointed reminder that there is still plenty to find out about the art of fifteenth-century Europe.
The next event connected to the project Identifying with the Art of the Fifteenth Century will take place on Thursday, 22 October 2015 at 5pm.
Rogier van der Weyden, Portraiture and Flesh
43 Gordon Square
London WC1H OPD
Part of the series The Murray Seminar on Medieval and Renaissance Art
The conference, the main public event associated with the project Identifying with the Art of the Fifteenth Century, will take place at Birkbeck on Thursday 17 September 2015. Supported by the British Academy, the conference casts light on neglected aspects of European art and urges a wider frame of reference.
Grigor Boykov, St Kliment Ohridsky University, Sofia
Grażyna Jurkowlaniec, Institute of Art History, University of Warsaw
Angeliki Lymberopoulou, The Open University
Giedrė Mickūnaitė, Vilnius Academy of Arts
Tatiana Sizonenko, University of San Diego
Further details can be found here.
Attendance is free but booking is required. Book a place here.
It seems appropriate to begin the first substantial post on this site with Rogier van der Weyden, one of the most celebrated artists of the fifteenth century. The Prado in Madrid is hosting an exhibition which brings together, for the first – and probably the last – time, the three paintings on which our understanding of the artist depends: the famous Descent from the Cross, one of the highlights of the Prado’s own rich collections, the Miraflores triptych from the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, and the monumental Crucifixion (left) from the Escorial whose restoration at the Prado provided the opportunity for this remarkable show.
The historical importance of the Escorial picture has long been recognised, but its woeful condition made it difficult to engage with. Its enormous size – it is nearly three and a quarter metres tall – poses severe structural problems and the picture had suffered from inadequate framing and support so that it cracked badly along the joins between its horizontal oak planks. Generations of fillings and overpaints had attempted to reclaim a presentable image but had largely obscured what turned out to be a surprisingly well-preserved painting.
The Crucifixion forms a stunning climax to this small but impressive exhibition. It now has what those aware of its troubled past might initially regard as a suspiciously opulent look and a video presentation in the adjacent room, charting the progress of the restoration, reveals how it was achieved. This is not viewing for those of a nervous disposition: it shows the conservation equivalent of open heart surgery. It is fascinating but disturbing to see a picture of this stature broken down into its constituent parts and revealed so plainly as painted planks of wood. This is not to complain about invasive restoration, though. I came away from the presentation convinced of the integrity of the conservation team and with a renewed respect for the artist’s sophistication. There had been very substantial losses of original paint along the joins in the panel but Rogier contrived to situate the key features of the image, especially faces and hands, away from these vulnerable areas and the robustness of the oil medium means that a very large part of his conception remains.
In many ways this is a very traditional exhibition. It is based around the work of a single artist and one of its main points is the issue of attribution. But it is important. Rogier’s fame in the fifteenth century is itself a historical issue, and if we can form a secure idea of the work that fame was based on we can develop an idea of the issues which concerned and motivated those who used the visual arts in the period. It is worth being aware just how little we know.
Van der Weyden was internationally famous in his own lifetime, but, unlike the case of his contemporary Jan van Eyck, we have no works signed by him and no surviving works can be linked to him through strictly contemporary documentation. The best we can do is the so-called Miraflores triptych in Berlin (below), seen by the painter Antonio Ponz in the late eighteenth century at the Charterhouse of Miraflores near Burgos and described in his accounts of his travels around Spain. Ponz quoted, in Latin, a now lost record to the effect that the work, by ‘Master Rogel’ (sic), had been given to the monastery by King John II of Castile in 1445. There is a chance that this record was at least based on a fifteenth-century document. That is as good as it gets for a documentary trail.
Other than that we have two paintings which can be identified as the newly restored Crucifixion and the Prado’s Descent listed in the inventory of the Escorial in the late sixteenth century where they are linked to the name ‘Rugier’. Based on those inventory entries a plausible history can be reconstructed for both pictures, but it is salutary to realize what a slender basis this is for the work of a major artist.
What convinces that these dry documentary traces point to the historically celebrated Rogier is the encounter with the works themselves: these are pictures of jaw-dropping splendour and force. I was recently at a conference discussing the ‘agency of things’ and the work of the anthropologist Alfred Gell, one of the major theorists of the agency of art, inevitably came up. Gell proposed art as a form of entrapment, something which catches and holds the viewer’s attention. Rogier’s work entraps the viewer in spectacular fashion, with arresting large-scale design and captivating detail. I found myself entranced, for example, by the crown-bearing angels at the apex of the arches in the Miraflores, like the mescalin-dosed Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception absorbed in the folds of his own trousers.
For captivating cloth, though, nothing here compares to the fountain of white drapery which all but engulfs the Virgin Mary in the Crucifixion. The great cascade of fabric, falling from a bundle around her hands, pressed to her face, reads as a torrent of otherwise notably absent tears. This is a large scale motif and, at first sight, the massive Crucifixion seems to occupy a different world from the Descent and Miraflores with their abundance of acutely observed detail. But the absorbing details are still here, just more sparing and perhaps more concentrated in their effect. Given its size, only the lower parts of the Crucifixion are at all easy to see. My eyes were more or less level with Christ’s cruelly-nailed feet and they are depicted with unsparing precision and copious blood. The blood runs freely and sparkles like jewels. In this Rogier demonstrates his characteristic thoughtfulness. In the Descent there is blood, but it is matt and lustreless. Christ, being removed from the cross, is some while dead. Here, by implication, he has only just breathed his last.
This impression is reinforced by a telling detail. There are usually lots of tears in van der Weyden but here the Virgin and St John are dry-eyed. The restoration, however, revealed three tears on the face of Christ. Two clearly began their course when his head was still upright. The last action of Christ on the cross in Rogier’s picture was to weep for humanity.
For me this was a moving show and not just because of the emotive content. The curator is Lorne Campbell, recently retired as Senior Research Curator at the National Gallery in London. Here he is introducing the exhibition. I was privileged to be taught Netherlandish painting by him in my first year of study in the history of art, shortly before he left higher education for the museum world. His enthusiasm and respect for Rogier impressed me deeply. The central importance of the three works discussed here was an important lesson and I vividly remember him lamenting the inaccessibility and poor state of the Crucifixion. Its recovery and its display alongside the Descent and the Miraflores triptych must represent the achievement of a career-long ambition.
The first event connected to the project Identifying with the Art of the Fifteenth Century will take place on Friday, 6 February 2015 at 5pm.
‘A Mass of Words’: Text and the Lure of Italy in the Study of Fifteenth-Century Art
43 Gordon Square
London WC1H OPD