Earlier this week, the newly reopened Speed Art Museum announced they have a special painting to share with Louisville. The nearly 600-year-old “Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor” by Jan van Eyck will be hanging for all of Derby City to see until early September, when it journeys back home to The Frick Collection in New York.
Insider visited the Speed to see the painting and talk with Erika Holmquist-Wall, the museum’s curator of European and American Painting and Sculpture.
She knows it can be tough to get a random visitor interested in a 600-year-old painting, and she also realizes the religious theme can be a barrier.
“It’s easy to dismiss it (as) another virgin and child,” says Holmquist-Wall. “(Similar art has) become the joke on Buzzfeed — ‘ugly Renaissance babies.’”
But with a tiny bit of knowledge, the painting, which was started in 1441, becomes fascinating on multiple levels. Setting aside the fact that it’s absolutely beautiful, there are three big reasons to be amazed by this piece of art: its place in history, the technical virtuosity on display, and the layers of story going on in one single image.
Kickstarting the Renaissance
“So often you think of the term ‘the Renaissance,’ and that’s a hard art historical term for people to hang their hat on if you’re not familiar with art history and coming to museums,” says Holmquist-Wall.
Part of the problem is it means a whole lot of things. It references a period of time over several hundred years, as well as a huge variety of disciplines. It’s art and music and philosophy and literature.
For those who are maybe a little less into history, just think of the Renaissance as “when all the cool stuff started happening that led to pretty much all the great stuff we have today.”
And artist van Eyck was right there at the beginning. He’s technically late Gothic, but he pretty much discovered oil painting, according to Holmquist-Wall.
“Van Eyck is the first to literally take powdered pigments and figure out how to suspend them in oil,” she says. All those famous paintings by Michelangelo and da Vinci and those guys? They’re using techniques van Eyck created.
The artist also was playing with perspective in way no one else was at the time. Holmquist-Wall pointed out other paintings, many hanging only a few steps away from the van Eyck, and even to a layman’s eye like mine, it was easy to see van Eyck’s influence. The stuff before him was flat. The stuff after him created little worlds we could look into. In the span of a hundred years, the whole game changed.
That change filtered down to Italy, and the Renaissance in fine art started.
Now, the historical importance of van Eyck’s technique is huge, but it’s also just impressive to witness in person. As amazing as modern art is, it can be sometimes difficult to understand what goes into creating something like a soup can by Andy Warhol.
But in front of “Virgin and Child,” and you can’t help but think, “Somebody made this.” You notice the incredible amount of detail, the lifelike quality of the rich fabrics and jewels on the figures. Heck, I spent several minutes just checking out the carpet they were standing on. This guy could paint.
Van Eyck’s use of perspective combined with his insane ability to paint incredibly small things allowed him to create backgrounds with breathtaking complexity. Holmquist-Wall pointed out all sorts of details for me, and I had a blast looking for other details in the deep background. There is a whole tiny city seen through the windows of the main action in this painting.
The paint is layered and textured to give the level of near photo realism.
“He is using oil paint, and he’s using very thin glazes to layer the paint, so you get this wonderful depth of the folds — it feel like actual draped fabric,” explains Holquist-Wall. “You get a sense of the texture. At the same time, he is using the paint and modeling it. Because of the consistency and the thickness, he’s able to shape it.”
Telling a Story
But those details and those shapes do more than just look pretty.
“Basically, this functions as a résumé,” says Holmquist-Wall. It’s a résumé for the guy kneeling in the picture, made of references to his past and a not too subtle reference to how much money he can bring to his new job.
That kneeling guy is Jan Vos, a Carthusian monk who had just been made a prior of a monastery outside of Bruges. Right in front of him is the Virgin Mary holding Jesus. That’s pretty standard. But on the other side of Mary is where it gets interesting.
“St. Elizabeth of Hungary is shown, and she is the patron saint of the Burgundian princess, (who) was basically funding a bunch of these monasteries,” says Holmquist-Wall.
By having van Eyck include this saint, Vos is basically bragging about where he gets his money and how he’s going to bring that money to the monastery. He’s got cash connections.
At Vos’ back is another important figure, St. Barbara, the patron saint of soldiers and artillery. The Middle Ages were a violent time, and there were whole orders of military priests and monks. That’s the kind of order Vos came from.
So, let’s break it down: At his back is his military past, and in front of him is the riches he can bring to his new position.
Holmquist-Wall calls it a résumé, but to me it sounds more like hip-hop smack talk from five centuries ago. Either way, there’s a lot going on there, and I didn’t even get to the tiny statue of the god Mars.
Holmquist-Wall did a great job of laying it all out for me on my visit, and I’ve done my best to relay some of it to you. But really, you should go see it for yourself. The Speed, located at 2035 S. Third St., is even free on Sundays.