Due to the vagaries of fortune, it can take a somewhat Herculean (or Pokemonian) effort to see all the masterpieces by any given artist, but between the Arnolfini Portrait and Man in a Turban in the National Gallery in London, The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin in the Louvre, the Ghent Altarpiece in, well, Ghent, to which I have now added the Madonna of Canon van der Paele in the Groeningen Museum in Bruges, I think I can safely say I've seen all the superstar works by Jan van Eyck.
Van Eyck is a helpful name to add to your memory banks for the next time someone challenges you to name three famous Belgians (I also suggest Hergé, Magritte, Jacky Ickx and Jacques Brel). According to Wikipedia, he was only "probably" born in what is now Belgium, but he was definitely active in Bruges in the first half of the 15th century, and his paintings charmingly invoke the fashions in clothing and furnishings that he would have encountered in his daily life. Long credited with inventing oil paint, it's now thought that he was merely superlatively skilled and innovative in its use.
That much is still glaringly obvious today. I don't know how long I stood staring at the Madonna of Canon van der Paele, but there is so much detail and such skill in rendering the different textures displayed in the painting and perfect perspective, that you could drink it in for hours on end.
It may sound silly, but I was captivated especially by a humble rug. Even looking at my photograph of this painting of a rug blows me away. I can't even comprehend how he tricks your brain into believing that the rug is lying on top of a flight of steps, or how he distinguishes the texture of the rug from the thick, stiff folds of the Virgin's gown, the tiled floor or the rich brocade on the bishop's robes. If you look carefully, you can even see that he's painted in "cracks" on the fold line of the rug over the top step. It's not necessarily my favourite painting of all time (nominees for that post would include Magritte's Empire of Light and Kandinsky's Im Blau - which can often be spotted in photos taken in my living room), but it is one of the most astonishing in terms of its technical virtuosity.
As you may have gathered by now, one of the things I did in Bruges was visit an art gallery - namely, the Groeninge Museum. It's a relatively small collection, but this allows you to really pay attention to its fine collection of Northern Renaissance art (I took much less time on the post-Renaissance stuff). Another particular highlight was Bosch's Last Judgement - which is stylistically about as far away from van Eyck as you can get, with its bizarre, nightmarish depictions of hell.
|Loved the guy pulling a face at Mary in this crucifixion scene|
|Goodness, is that a man or a satyr? Renaissance leggings certainly leave nothing to the imagination, at any rate|
|I'm not sure whether it comes across in the photo, but when I walked in the room, I literally thought that this was a stuffed bird in a box frame - probably the best trompe l'oeil effect I've seen|
|Basilica of the Holy Blood (Source: Wikipedia)|
So that was that, other than the fact that the sun came out and I took photos on the way back to the hostel which didn't actually get transferred off my camera the first time (thus I didn't put any of them up on the last post). That seems to happen with annoying regularity - I quite often realise, "hmm, I'm sure I took more photos than that", but I wonder how often I've wiped my memory card with dozens of unseen photos on it. As everything's prettier with a blue sky behind it, here are some snaps of Bruges in living colour:
|Pretty church on the way to the train station|
|The back of the Church of Our Lady|
|The scenery on the train journey back to Brussels had a real Christmas-card feel to it - all flat, snow-covered fields with the odd church spire peeping through|