In sharp contrast to the multiple-viewpoint technique and elongated figures dominating the old, Byzantine-influenced paintings, the new Western 15th century religious images are distinguished above all by an “increasing realism” embedding conspicuous moments in biblical narrative within landscapes or interiors of great spatial and symbolic complexity. Moreover, the increased availability of panel paintings and, by the mid-15th-century, woodcuts, naturally facilitates their acquisition as quasi-spiritual tokens for the purpose of private devotion. Hans Belting writes: “Individual citizens did not want an image different from the public one so much as they needed one that would belong to them personally. They expected the image to speak to them in person.”
Jeffrey Hamburger notes that the transition from aniconic to an image-based vision is characterized by “the increasingly important role of corporeal imagery in spiritual life.” In this development, spanning from the late 13th through the 15th century, “the process of vision is detached from the process of reading [Scripture].” Less the focus of sustained exegesis or affective vision than a deposit of possible allusions and increasingly fungible symbolic meanings, biblical narrative congeals into the devotional image (Andachtsbild), such as the Man of Sorrows or the Pietà motif. Sara Lipton has remarked on the “multiplication and diversification of subject matter, a trend towards emotionalism and naturalism in style, and the introduction of religious art into urban and bourgeois domestic spaces.” Jeffrey Hamburger says that aside from competing for the three-dimensional realism that until now had been the exclusive province of sculpture, the rapid development of linear perspective observable in religious painting at the start of the 15th century not only “integrates mystical theology with a universal epistemology . . . [but] also tended to level distinctions between mystical, visionary, and visual experience.”
Arguably, the growing investment in images, less as conduits to than as embodied proof of formerly ineffable, spiritual meanings favors a realist conception of art that is accommodated particularly well by the medium of sculpture. Likewise, 15th century religious painting, with its strong emphasis on three-dimensional spaces governed by the laws of linear perspective often appears to emulate sculpture. In van Eyck’s “Virgin and Child with Canon Joris van der Paele” (1434-36 / Featured Image)—and also in his “Madonna of Chancellor Rolin” from the same period—the image no longer focuses the beholder’s devout attention onto a single, unmediated spiritual content. Instead, the act of devotion and prayer that is centered on the image of the Madonna has itself become the painting’s central motif; devotional vision is both realized in and (reflexively) authenticated by the image. Set within an imagined ecclesial space adapted to the unique choreography of figures, van Eyck’s painting combines extraordinary technical artistry, notes Bret Rothstein, “that appeals emphatically to the senses” with complex symbolic meanings hovering in the background. As regards the choreography of persons, one is struck by the absence of eye contact among any of the figures. Thus the devout and gravely ill Canon van der Paele clutches his prayer book, having just then removed his eyeglasses in a gesture that makes him appear “fundamentally disconnected from the perceptible world.” The canon’s transition from material perception (of the book in his hands) to a spiritual vision either intended or momentarily achieved, Rothstein remarks again, also “allud[es] to the fallibility of the senses more generally.” As for the notable absence of eye contact among the figures, the one exception is the infant Christ, whose searching look appears firmly trained on van der Paele.
Yet, the Virgin and Child, so regally and realistically placed at the painting’s center, might for all that be taken as a projection of the Canon’s inner vision. Whether that vision is merely aspirational or has been positively achieved depends at least in part on how van der Paele’s persona and office would have been viewed. As a secular canon with allegiance to the Church and the Pope, the ecclesiastic privileges enjoyed by van der Paele (~1370-1443) guaranteed him income from numerous prebends without entailing substantive service obligations. Such exclusively worldly investments in the Church would likely have been perceived as, argues Craig Harbison, “questionable on both political and intellectual grounds” by his contemporaries. By capturing the lavish ornamentation of the church interior and St. Donatian’s ecclesiastical attire, van Eyck’s painting hints at a sharp tension between the Church as a space of conspicuous materiality and the invisible eschaton to which the well-beneficed, albeit gravely ill canon appears to direct his prayerful attention. This tension between corporate-ecclesiastic and private-devotional objectives is not only accentuated by emblematic figures gazing in various directions without their eyes ever meeting but also by an inscription referencing St. Donatian’s rebirth and subsequent consecration as bishop (SOLO P[AR]TV NON[VS] FR[ATRV]M MERS[VS] VIV[VS] REDIT[VR]. RENAT[VS] ARCH[IEPISC]O[PV]S PR[I]M[VS] REMIS CONSTITUVITVR” [The ninth brother from a single birth, he fell into the water and returned alive. Thus reborn, he was made the first Archbishop of Reims. He now enjoys the eternal glory of God].
Fundamentally, van Eyck’s painting features two distinct plateaus of meaning that operate in virtual simultaneity: a realistic one involving three men—St. Donatian, patron saint of the canon’s church in Bruges, in full bishop’s regalia earnestly appraising the Canon, who in turn seems awkwardly placed next to the canon’s name-saint, St. George. Already, their choreography suggests unresolved tensions between the Church Penitent and the Church Militant. The other plateau involves the eschaton of the Church Triumphant, embodied by the Virgin and Child, whose presence correlates with the Canon’s inner vision. At the same time, the emphatically realist presentation of the Madonna and Child as the painting’s central motif invites the beholder to authenticate at the level of empirical sight (visus) what the penitent Canon sees (or aspires to see) by inward contemplation (visio). Hence Bret Rothstein views van der Paele “quite clearly in the company of the surrounding group” (a fact brought home by St. George’s shadow falling across the canon’s shoulder) and sees van Eyck “cleverly impl[ying] that the Virgin, Child, saints, and van der Paele are nothing less than physically present before us.” Yet Rothstein also notes that the canon “does not see the group around him at all,” a fact that inevitably complicates whatever spiritual message van Eyck’s pictorial realism might be taken to convey. For any notion of realism anchored in shared, inter-subjective and verifiable perception begins to crumble if it is claimed that an image places “before us,” in spatiotemporal simultaneity, a 15th century canon, two saints who died more than a millennium earlier, as well as the Virgin and Christ child. More plausibly, one might hold that their visibility to us, the beholders of van Eyck’s canvas, is itself facilitated by the painting’s stunning simulation of three-dimensional ecclesiastic space, a perceptual crutch of sorts meant to assist viewers struggling to apprehend at the level of material sight the community of saints, Virgin, and Child that has revealed itself to the canon in a bona fide spiritual vision.
A further complication, as Jeffrey Hamburger has noted, arises from the fact that van Eyck, with consummate technical wizardry, paints his various reflections (including his own) onto the armor of St. George’s armor. Such conspicuous feats of artistry as the painting of reflections (most famously realized in van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait) and the stunning smoothness of brushwork when it comes to capturing texture and color (e.g., the bishop’s and the Virgin’s robes; the mail in St. George’s armor, the semi-transparent glass panels in the background) are all the more remarkable given that van Eyck had only pioneered painting with the new medium of siccative oil (on oak panel) around 1410. And yet, if the superior richness and stunningly fine pigmentation of the new mixtures allowed for unprecedented levels of painterly illusionism, it thereby also complicates the devotional image’s theological foundations. Pictorial realism acquiesces and, as a coveted material artifact positively reinforces, the viewer’s “postlapsarian mental function, which necessarily relies on pictures as a consequence of spiritual blindness.” This being so, however, the very reverse of Rothstein’s conclusion (“we respond to the saint as though he is present before us”) would seem to apply. For the viewer absorbed by van Eyck’s illusionism remains barred, precisely by the conspicuous intercession of the material painting, from the spiritual vision that van der Paele, having taken off his eyeglasses, has seemingly attained.
Insofar as perspectival and textural illusion becomes the principal artistic objective, it also distracts from, and ultimately supervenes on, Bernard’s and Bonaventure’s ideal of visio as a strictly aniconic, spiritual state. This is the major predicament of mid-15th century painting: whereas Bonaventure’s Itinerarium had conceived vision as an integral narrative sequence leading from three-dimensional, visible “remnants” (vestigia) toward the aniconic vision of the trinitas superessentialis, van Eyck’s painting stages the visible and the invisible as competing for the same epistemological space. The act of devotion, prayer, and contemplation has been pared down to three-dimensional, sculpture-like effects, a contingent perspectival rendering of time-bound and irremediably worldly condition. Painting, Jean-Luc Marion observes, “will always strive to present precisely those aspects that shine with a greater radiance . . . [In it] only the visible remains entirely presented, without further promising anything else to see save what is offered already.” Anchored in linear perspective and realized on smoothly lacquered surfaces that dissemble the material brushwork to which it owes its existence, van Eyck’s art of illusion transmutes the liturgically embedded and theologically grounded eikon into a painterly artifact. For Jean-Luc Marion, the painting’s “non-physical space, where the visible alone reigns, abolishes l’invu (the invisible by default), and reduces the phenomenon to pure visibility.” Increasingly, then, the devotional image evolves into a membrane of sorts, at once promising and obstructing access “to an impenetrable and incommensurable reality.” Unsurprisingly, the mid-fifteenth-century devotional image flowers into a cultural commodity and status symbol of sorts; earlier religious paintings are being recut so as to fit into expensively ornamented tondo frames, thereby suffusing their wealthy owners’ ostensive piety with material affirmations of their social status. Hans Belting argues the owner thus could imagine that “to look into the expensively painted mirror [was] to see, not himself, but the image of the suffering Christ.”
A quasi-Freudian fort-da game ensues whereby van Eyck’s pictures simultaneously rely on and confound the medieval notion that three-dimensional images . . . had a higher claim on reality than a mere picture.” Early-15th century devotional paintings thus are distinguished, according Jeffrey Hamburger, “by the degree to which they develop a self-conscious discourse on the status of images, imaginative experience, and their role in visionary perception.” Such late-medieval developments throw into relief the ontological instability of the image, its precarious oscillation between the iconic and the idolatrous, between, as Jean-Luc Marion reminds us, “two manners of being . . . not two classes of beings.” In the case of the idol, the visible altogether circumscribes the beholder’s hermeneutic activity. Rather than functioning as the conduit to something invisible, as Bernard’s and Bonaventure’s mystic theology insists, “the idol fascinates and captivates the gaze precisely because everything in it must expose itself to the gaze.” The idol, says Jean-Luc Marion, “with its visibility fills the intention of the gaze, which wants nothing other than to see.” At issue, then, is an increasingly “apparent opposition between the devotional image and the imageless devotion,” between the image as preliminary scaffolding of essentially invisible spiritual meanings, or as the indispensable catalyst for their attainment in the form of a vision. As Jeffrey Hamburger reformulates the central question, “were the visions inspired by the art, or the art by the visions?” If, says Hans Belting, within the “new conception of the holy image . . . the subjective moment exists within the image itself,” and if thereby “the image has changed to the point where a private salvation becomes its real subject matter,” the startling emphasis on the mediality and materiality of images greatly complicates, indeed decisively compromises, the theological justification of images that John Damascene and Theodore the Studite had formulated nearly seven centuries earlier.
By 1450, the central concern of religious images is no longer, at least not unequivocally, to focus the beholder’s mental vision upon the invisible Triune God. For the phenomenology of image-experience has decisively shifted, away from the humble contemplation of an eternal mystery, still prominent in late-14th century mysticism or adherents of the devotio moderna. Instead, an incipiently secular hermeneutic now aims to balance the formal-technical, symbolic-motivic, and theological dimensions of the painted image—dimensions intuitively felt to be no longer in alignment as, perhaps, they once had been in 6th and 7th century Byzantium. The metaphysical dimension of images and the spiritual quality of the gaze they institute has become palpably atrophied, just as the Byzantine ideal of theosis, the unio mystica at the heart of Julian’s writings, and the austere humility of the anchorite life that had brought them forth, have become increasingly unfathomable to her contemporaries.
This essay is an excerpt from a working manuscript on the history of Christian imagery by Professor Pfau under consideration for publication by the University of Notre Dame Press.
Featured Image: Jan van Eyck, The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele, c. 1434–36; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.