Even if you look at the paintings in this book so closely that your nose touches the paper, you’re still looking at them across a vast distance: the centuries that separate the highly religious, proto-scientific age of Jan Van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) from our own post-Christian, science-saturated age. We can’t see them as Van Eyck meant them to be seen and his contemporaries did see them, because the old beliefs and certainties have vanished or changed. Perhaps the portraits – including his own shrewd, thin-lipped and highly intelligent face, watching with careful, observant eyes beneath a red turban – have best ridden out the centuries. But what do the Madonnas and Annunciations mean now? Not what they meant once: Protestantism and secularism have trampled on Van Eyck’s Catholic world.
By doing that, they also trampled on the paganism preserved in Catholicism. I get a strong sense of Dionysian joy from paintings like the polyptychic Ghent Altarpiece of 1424-32. Van Eyck was using Christian symbols to celebrate an un-Christian love of the earth and its secular splendours: light, colour, jewels, music, living flesh, rich fabrics and luxuriant hair. The Deësis that dominates the altarpiece, “an iconic representation of Christ enthroned, flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist”, has a stern-faced, tiara-wearing, fully bearded Christ, but there’s a sense of personal or private mythology in the Adoration of the Lamb below it, where the Lamb bleeds into a chalice atop an altar and an angel-topped fountain plays amid the worshippers:
…in front of the Lamb stands the Fountain of Life, which is referred to in Revelation. Crowds are thronging to pay homage to the Lamb, the Savior of Mankind: Apostles, Prophets, virgins, saints, Fathers of the Church and martyrs. The mystic scene is depicted in a paradisiacal landscape full of botanical detail, depicting flowers from all over the world, including valerian, lily of the valley, narcissi, lilies, basil and poppies. Van Eyck has moved away from the medieval style towards an authentic representation of nature, down to the most minute detail. (pg. 50)
Van Eyck didn’t take the crazed and disturbing excursions of his near-contemporary Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516), but there are hints of Bosch here and there in his art and hints of heterodoxy too. More obvious are the precision and accuracy of Eyck’s eyes and the skill with which he captured what he saw with his fingers and brush. That realism would appear, even more highly developed, in artists like Dürer and Vermeer, as the forces we can see stirring in Van Eyck’s art begin to exert their full strength.
For Van Eyck is important not just artistically and culturally, not just as a witness to vanished piety: he was one of the midwives of science, because his painting depended on mastery not just of art but of technology. He was the great pioneer of painting in oils and the richness and detail of his paintings still pay tribute to the chemical skills that allowed him to capture light and shape on canvas. The Italian biographer Vasari credits him with the invention of oil-painting: “It was first invented in Flanders by Johann of Bruges” (Van Eyck in Close-Up, pg. 138). This is significant in uncomfortable ways. I was careful above to call our own age “post-Christian”, rather than “post-religious”. Religion in disguised forms is still very strong, as would soon be apparent if Simone Ferrari, the Italian art historian who wrote this book, had spoken the full truth about Van Eyck. He wasn’t special just as an artistic genius, but as a white male north-western European. If Ferrari had said that, she would have punished for it rather in the way Galileo was punished for challenging the reality-denying religion of his day.
But the truth is that Van Eyck’s genius grew out of his genetics and the individualism fostered in his small corner of the world by the church’s prohibition on cousin marriage. In-breeding leads to societies that look inward; outbreeding leads to societies than look outward, not just sociologically but philosophically and epistemologically too. Van Eyck’s art was an early fruit of what might might called extraspection; Protestantism and science, both foreshadowed in Van Eyck, were later fruits; and the fruit will turn to ashes when civil war breaks out in Europe because of mass immigration. Individualist nations have been relatively easy for tribal ideologues to corrupt with universalist snake-oil. Van Eyck and his contemporaries began the process, but they would not have accepted Muslim migration. They would have been right. And though Islam has overseen some great art and architecture, and still has a calligraphic tradition that surpasses anything in Europe, it has never produced a Van Eyck.
And I don’t think Van Eyck ever produced an image more beautiful and inspiring than the rainbow-winged angel in The Annunciation of c. 1433-5. Smiles are rare in art from this period and the Virgin Mary herself is both unsmiling and plain as she receives the news that she will bear a divine child. But the angel is beautiful and smiles radiantly, crowned with gems and clad in an intricately pleated robe. That painting alone might secure Van Eyck’s reputation and Van Eyck alone makes Europe worth preserving. We can’t look at his paintings with his eyes any more, but his genius and importance are still plain to see and his legacy is still ours to defend.