The Genius of Jan Van Eyck

The Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck (circa 1390-1441) is celebrated in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium, with an exhibit “Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution” until April 30, 2020. The Wall Street Journal features an essay, “’An Optical Revolution’: Truer than Life,” by Judith Dobrzynski. She notes that the Ghent altarpiece, with the central panel still in restoration, remains in the Saint Bavo Cathedral nearby. “The restoration of the main panel revealed, among other things, the original human-like facial features of the mystical Lamb of God, particularly his eyes…”

One may consult the large book by Fabrici Hadjadj, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb: The Ghent Altarpiece, Painted by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck (New York: Magnificat, 2015), for a careful study of this multi-faceted painting.

On the Museum’s website the description of the exhibit is limited. See www.mskgent.be/en/exhibitions/van-eyck.

However we may also enjoy zoomable images at closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be/ and at the Van Eyck page of the Google Art project at artsandculture.google.com/entity/m0ck2w.

The Plague and Art

Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo by Anthony van Dyck / Public domain

The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art (Oxford University Press, 1996) by Peter and Linda Murray has an entry, “Plague Saints,” of whom there are 19. They mention Saints Roch (Rocco), Sebastian, Cosmas and Damian, Anthony Abbot and Charles Borromeo.

In 1624, Anthony van Dyck painted St. Rosalia while he was quarantined in Palermo, Sicily. One of these paintings is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and Jason Farago recently published this essay about it in The New York Times on March 26, 2020: “The Saint Who Stopped an Epidemic Is on Lockdown at the Met.”

The Ghent Altarpiece

Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution
Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (MSK)
February 1 – April 30, 2020

Hubert (died 1426) and Jan (1390?-1441) van Eyck created the wonderful paintings whose centerpiece is “The Adoration of the Lamb,” completed in 1432. Peter and Linda Murray offer a description of this central panel as follows:

In the NT the vital words are those of the Baptist (John 1:29, 36), when he recognizes Jesus as the Christ: ‘Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ These are the words of the AGNUS DEI, said daily in the Mass, always with the invocation ‘have mercy on us, give us peace’. In Rev. (Apoc) 5:6, 12; 12:11; and 22:1, the stress is on salvation emanating from the Lamb, since amid the Beasts and the Elders ‘stood the Lamb as if it had been slaughtered’ and ‘the river of water of life flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb’. This is the theme of van Eyck’s Adoration of the Lamb, where the pilgrims approach the altar on which stands the Lamb with blood flowing from his breast into a chalice. (Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art (Oxford University Press, 1996) p. 388)

The painstaking work of restoration of the panels began in 2012; this is described in “Realism and Revelation” in The Wall Street Journal, from which I quote:

A few weeks ago, the most recent phase of the restoration was unveiled, including the large front panel showing a bleeding lamb on an altar, surrounded by Christian martyrs, Jewish prophets and pagan writers. The panel—from which the altarpiece takes an often-used title, “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”—has been transformed by its cleaning, with the lamb’s face revealed to have an intelligent, nearly human expressiveness.

The Ghent Museum of Fine Arts will have an exhibit, “Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution,” from February 1, 2020. The Museum’s website offers an introduction to this masterpiece of the Belgian Cathedral of San Bavo.

Etching: A New Art Form

The paintings and sculptures of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were shared widely when woodcuts or engravings reproduced these forms of art. In the Wall Street Journal, Barrymore Laurence Scherer presents an exhibit, “The Renaissance of Etching” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until January 20, 2020.  His essay, “Outlining a Revolutionary Technique,” describes the advance: “But around 1500 printmaking itself was revolutionized when the technique of etching metal- primarily to decorate armor- was adapted to printing images on paper.”

The Met’s website of the exhibit allows us to explore the many Biblical scenes at leisure.

Tiffany Windows

The work of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) and his colleagues provides a delightful background for the celebration of Christian worship in many American Episcopal and Protestant churches from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum in Chicago offers an exhibit of these windows, “Eternal Light: The Sacred Stained-Glass Windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany,” until March 8, 2020.
 
Edward Rothstein offers a review, “‘Eternal Light: The Sacred Stained-Glass Windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany’ Review: A Vibrant, Luminous Faith,” in the WSJ. He quotes the introduction to the exhibit, “explaining how Tiffany’s experimentation with glass- its coloration, its texture and its manufacture- led to the revival of a Medieval religious art form.”
 
The website of the exhibit gives a few samples of the themes relating to the faith-filled prayer evoked in the light of the windows: http://driehausmuseum.org/exhibition/eternallight/.

Jewish Treasures from Medieval France

The Metropolitan Museum Cloisters in New York City has an exhibit “The Colmar Treasure: A Medieval Jewish Legacy” until January 12, 2020. See www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2019/colmar-treasure-medieval-jewish-legacy.

The Jewish Week has a special report by Diane Cole, which you can read at jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/jewels-give-voice-to-a-lost-community/. In The Wall Street Journal, Susan Delson described Hidden Treasures from the Middle Ages with a reproduction of a page from a 14th century Jewish prayer book. The major collection of hidden jewels and coins was discovered in 1863. In addition, “research in the Colmar municipal library recently yielded another hidden treasure: fragments of Hebrew manuscripts that were later incorporated into the bindings of other books.” Several of these pages are among the pictures on the Cloisters’ website.

As we strive to promote understanding and harmony between Jews and their neighbors today, we appreciate the poignant reminders of the past and its burdens of persecution and suffering. May the principle of the Golden Rule be effective for a better future!

Rembrandt and Rubens

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), celebrated as painter, etcher and printmaker, died at the age of 63. He is commemorated in many places on this major anniversary of his death. Nina Siegal in the The New York Times essay, “The Relevance of Rembrandt 350 years later,” described the exhibitions. See also Russell Shorto’s essay, “Rembrandt in the Blood,” in the The New York Times Magazine.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) traveled widely in Italy and Spain in his younger years and quite early attained an international reputation. His story was presented by J.S. Marcus, “The Ruben Phenomenon,” in the The Wall Street Journal. The Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco offers an exhibit of young Rubens from April 6 – September 8, 2019; see https://legionofhonor.famsf.org/exhibitions/early-rubens.

Verrocchio, Master of Leonardo

Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488) had the distinction of teaching Leonardo da Vinci and other great Renaissance artists of Florence, Italy. “Verrocchio shone as a teacher, draftsman and sculptor – as well as architect and musician – but his talents reached their apotheosis in bronze casting…” (Brenda Cronin, “Teacher of the Old Masters,” wsj.com).

An exhibition opened on March 9th at the Palazzo Strozzi and the Bargello Museum in Florence; see www.palazzostrozzi.org/mostre/verrocchio-master-of-leonardo/?lang=en.  Some works will be exhibited in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. from September 15, 2019; see www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2019/andrea-del-verrocchio-renaissance-florence.html.

Birds in Art

Phoenix Futon Cover Japan, Showa Period (1926-1989). Cotton, yuzen resist-dyed indigo. Purchase 1983 Thomas L. Raymond Bequest Fund 83.91. Part of the “Birding in Art” exhibit at the Newark Museum.

The Newark Museum has celebrated its treasures of Asian Art in many exhibits.  From March 13, 2019 until February 23, 2020, “Birding in Asian Art” continues this impressive tradition.

Detail of a miniature of an owl (Bubo) being attacked by three smaller birds. Image taken from f. 47 of Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds. Written in Latin.

This exhibit reminds us of the long history in the Mediterranean world of drawing moral and spiritual lessons from the wonders of nature. In Greek the Physiologos, a “discourse on nature” of approximately the third century A.D., gathered earlier traditions into a synthesis that became popular in the Latin bestiaries of the eleventh century and later.

Detail of a miniature of a crocodile. Image taken from f. 24 of Bestiary (ff. 3-141), Lapidary (ff. 141v-149). Written in Latin and French.

The Book of God’s Word and the Book of Nature offered insights into the meaning of life for many generations of people who looked for ways to teach guiding principles in regard to faith and morality. The developments in East and West complement each other and may still have lessons for people of the modern world.

Detail of a miniature of Adam naming the animals, with a stag, a lion, a donkey, a rabbit and a man riding a camel. Image taken from f. 34v of Bestiary (ff. 3-141), Lapidary (ff. 141v-149). Written in Latin and French.

Superpowers of the Ancient Middle East

The land of Israel lay between the great kingdoms of Egypt and Assyria, which often entered into battle on the territory of small countries lying between them. The hope expressed in Isaiah the prophet challenges people of faith throughout the ages:

On that day Israel will be a third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the land, when the Lord of hosts blesses it: “Blessed be my people Egypt, and the work of my hands Assyria, and my inheritance, Israel.” (Isaiah 19:24-25)

Over the past two hundred years local people and archaeologists have made amazing discoveries related to the history of these lands. Last month, The New York Times reported on the discovery of a priest’s intact tomb from the period well before Abram’s visit recorded in Genesis 12:12-20 (click here to read the NYT article).

The British Museum in London possesses extraordinary works of art from the Assyrian and Babylonian periods as the context for the biblical record of the reigns of David and his dynasty in Jerusalem.

An exhibit in the British Museum until February 24, 2019 has the title “I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria.” Richard Cork reviewed this exhibit in “A Conqueror with a Taste for Art” in The Wall Street Journal.