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Jan van Eyck: The Play of Realism.

Craig Harbison. Reaktion Books, 1991. 130 illus. + 228 pp. $50.

This ambitious study interrogates the realistic effect of Jan van Eyck's panels, arguing that his imagery is neither simply veridical nor firmly coded with fixed religious meanings. Rather, these rare and costly works, commissioned by lay patrons from Philip the Good's painter, function as commodities that, in the words of Nicolas Rolin, one of Van Eyck's foremost clients, are transacted to exchange for celestial goods temporal ones. " If painting is the currency of spiritual-temporal exchange, and such exchange is constitutive of religious experience, then the religious meaning of Van Eyck's images derives, as Harbison puts it, from their "negotiating or exchange value." Harbison attempts to explain this value by mapping the systems of exchange in which he imagines Van Eyck and his patrons to have participated.

In the Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin, for example, which depicts Rolin reciting the Little Office of the Virgin before a vision of Mary as Queen throning Christ as King and Priest, the Chancellor engages in a pious act of confession, for which Christ grants him absolution. Harbison shows by reference to manuals of confession that the sacrament of penance could also serve as a model for autobiographical reflection. Rolin can therefore be seen to indulge in a confessional protocol that allows him to surround himself with signs of his prosperity and estate, rewards for his service as court functionary. These signs of property--the magnificently appointed tower room, the vineyards in the distance, the golden crown suspended over the Virgin's head -- are simultaneously poetic figures of the Virgin's virtues, amassed in the manner of panegyrics such as Georges Chastellain's Louenge a la tres-glorieuse Vierge. In praising Mary and confessing to Christ, Rolin yet claims property over the world, rather than renouncing its riches; indeed, his confession is only partial, for Van Eyck omits any allusion to the sin of avarice. By invoking what he terms "extra-artistic sources"--manuals of confession, Chastellain's Louenge, and information about the status of court functionaries -- Harbison is able to identify the kinds of negotiation thematized by Van Eyck, suggesting what Rolin hoped to obtain from the Virgin and Child, what he was willing to forego in exchange for salvation, but also what he withheld.

Although Harbison devotes a chapter to the Ghent Altarpiece, which, following Dana Goodgal, he associates with Olivier de Langhe's treatise on the sacrament of the Eucharist, his primary interest is in Van Eyck's smaller panels. Painted as expressions of lay piety and exempt from clerical supervision, they cannot be fully explained by recourse to Church doctrine, liturgical ritual, or scholastic theology. In making this assertion, Harbison disputes the interpretive models of Erwin Panofsky and Barbara G. Lane, arguing that Van Eyck neither implements a symbolic system based in theology nor aims primarily to figure the liturgy, embodying religious truths reenacted in Church ritual. Harbison instead follows the lead of James H. Marrow and Caroline Walker Bynum, who have called for a reappraisal of late Medieval symbolic usage, arguing that the meaning of images inheres in the kinds of response they engender and, further, that these responses are often portrayed within the images themselves.

Harbison's telling analysis of the Virgin and Child with George van der Paele offers a case in point. Situated in a church interior in the company of Saints George and Donatian, Van der Paele worships the Virgin and Child, forming part of the corporate body of the faithful. Himself a secular canon, whose endowment of two chaplaincies is commemorated in the inscription on Van Eyck's frame, he thus declares his institutional affiliation with the Church. Yet he is shown lost in meditation, the object of the Virgin's and Christ's gaze, his access to a vision of religious truth mediated not by a priest, but rather by private prayer. If he thus alludes to the ideals of the Modern Devotion, he does so ambivalently, for he refused to renounce his rich benefices, eschewing a life of poverty. Van der Paele, who reconciles several modes of worship, observing his canonical office while embracing a popular form of devotion, is paradigmatic for Harbison, who aims to show how Van Eyck and his patrons "drew on different aspects of lay piety," invoking the cult of the Sacred Heart in the Dresden Triptych, eliciting the devotion of pilgrims to cult statues in the Virgin and Child in a Church, and propounding a modern icon in the Virgin and Child by a Fountain.

Although Harbison considers the connection between court affiliation and various forms of lay piety, stating that the "relation between painting and religious courtly poetry cannot be drawn too tightly," he handles only briefly the nexus of literary and pictorial arts at court. This is a promising field of study, as Frits Pieter van Oostrom's recently published Court and Culture: Dutch Literature 1350-1450 suggests. At the court of Holland-Bavaria, Dirk of Delft's scholastic summa, the Tafel vanden kersten ghelove (Mirror of the Christian Faith), could certify clerical supervision over external forms of pilety, even as Dirk Potter's nearly contemporary Blome der doechden (Flower of Virtues) ignored the clergy, endorsing prudentia and const (artfulness) rather than the sacraments as the means to salvation. Dirk Potter, who rose through the ranks of the court bureaucracy, and whose manuscripts pralse noble deeds above nobility of blood, cunning and sweet artifice as the highest virtues, offers especially relevant parallels to Van Eyck. The literary historian, as Van Oostrom demonstrates, must negotiate between texts and social forms, and Harbison, who offers a commendable analysis of Van Eyck's art, would do well to attend more closely to literary court culture.
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Author:Melion, Walter S.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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