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Hubert and Jan Van Eyck

Brothers, Flemish illuminators and painters, founders of all the schools of painting in the North of Europe

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Eyck, HUBERT and JAN VAN, brothers, Flemish illuminators and painters, founders of the school of Bruges and consequently of all the schools of painting in the North of Europe. Hubert was born at Maeseyck (i.e. Eyck on the Meuse) in the Diocese of Liege, about 1366, and his brother Jan about twenty years later, 1385. They had a sister named Margaret who, won fame as a miniaturist.

A document of 1413 makes the earliest mention we have of a painting by “Master Hubert”. In 1424 he was living at Ghent, and he died there on the 18th of September, 1426. We have no further definite knowledge concerning the elder of the brothers. Of the younger we know that in 1420 he presented a Madonna’s head to the Guild of Antwerp, that in 1422 he decorated a paschal candle for the cathedral of Cambrai, and that in 1425 he was at The Hague in the service of Jean Sans Merci. Afterwards he went to Bruges and to Lille to the court of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, as peintre et varlet de chambre. He was already a man of some influence at court, and he travelled in the embassy charged to ask the hand of Isabella of Portugal for Philip, and it was his privilege to paint her portrait “true to life” thereby fixing Philip’s choice. This journey lasted from the 18th of October, 1428, to the end of December, 1429. In 1431 he went to Hesdin to superintend, for the Duke, the work going on at the castle there: and afterwards he returned to Bruges, which he seldom left again. He married, and a child of his was baptized in 1434. In 1436 we learn once more that he received 720 livres on account of “certain secret matter”, doubtless in connection with some new mission or journey. He died towards the end of June, 1441.

The most important work of the brothers Van Eyck, and the one that places their names among the great masters of painting for ever, is the famous altar-piece, “The Adoration of the Lamb“, of which the central portion is preserved in St-Bavons at Ghent, while the wings have found their way to the Museums of Berlin and of Brussels. It is one of the enigmas of art. All the questions bearing on it may, however, be reduced to two: Who was its author? and, What was its origin? As to its authorship, all we know depends on an inscription obscure enough, which is to be read on the edge of its frame:

Pictor Hubertus e Eyck major quo nemo repertus

Incepit pondus: quod Johannes arte secundus

Suscepit letus, Judoci Vyd prece fretus

Vers-V seXta Ma-I: Vos CoLLoCat a-Cta tVerI

The faulty Latin of this cryptic inscription means: “Hubert van Eyck, the greatest painter that ever lived, began this work [pondus], which John, his brother, second only to him in skill, had the happiness to continue at the request of Jodocus (Josse) Vydt. By this line, on the 6th of May, you learn when the work was completed, i.e., MCCCCXXXII.” That it is their joint work is certain, but it is impossible to distinguish which portion belongs to each brother. Very soon Jan began to get all the credit for it. Durer mentions only Jan in his “Journal” of 1521. But the inscription clearly states that Hubert began the work and asserts that he was the greater artist, his brother being called in only at his death, and in order to complete it. But how far had Hubert progressed with it? How far back had he been commissioned to paint it? In 1426 were portions of it finished, or was it merely a sketch, a general outline when Jan took charge? Who suggested the subject? Who planned its treatment? Can we believe that a painter of any school living in a fifteenth century atmosphere could have elaborated by himself from a few texts of the Apocalypse (v, 6-14) such a wealth of detail, such symphony of symbolism and imagery? Who was the theologian who inspired this mighty poem as others had inspired the learned allegories of the Chapel of the Spaniards, and of the Hall of the Segnatura? And again, in the history of painting from the miniatures of the Irish Apocalypses (eleventh century) to the Angers tapestries, what were the artistic sources of this great work?

This moral encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, if we may call it such, treats of all things in heaven and on earth (there was a predella to it depicting hell, but it disappeared in the sixteenth century); it portrays God and man in all their historical and mystical relations; it tells us of the heavenly and the earthly paradise, of the ages that have followed one another in the flight of time, of the Dogma of the Fall, and that of the Redemption, of Adam and Eve, and of the first sacrifices; of the death of Abel (type of Christ); of the years of expectation of the patriarchs and just men of the Old Law; of the mystery of the Incarnation; of the Trinity; of the world subject to the law of Christ; of the life of the Church in her saints, her hermits, her virgins, her martyrs, her pontiffs, her confessors, her warrior princes; of all Christendom in a landscape filled with cathedral spires (Rome, Jerusalem, Utrecht, etc.). And can we in reason be asked to believe that this wonderful pictorial epic reaching out from the beginning to the consummation of the world and ending in a glimpse of the eternal life to come as full in conception and as orderly in arrangement as the “Divina Commedia” itself; summing up the Old as well as the New Testament, drawing its inspiration from St. Augustine’s “Civitas Dei”, and Vincent of Beauvais‘ “Speculum Majus”, as well as Jacobus de Voragine’s “Legenda Aurea“, and Dante’s “De Monarchic”; a compendium of politics, history, and theology, and which crowns the representation of man’s life on earth by a glimpse of the Infinite, can we in reason be asked to believe that this lofty expression of the ideals of Christendom in the Europe of the Middle Ages sprang Minerva-like, fully formed from the brain of a single artist?

No one can adopt this supposition except for the purpose of ascribing all the honor of having conceived this painting to the elder of the brothers. As an assumption, however, it is altogether gratuitous. There is not one of the scenes that can be attributed to Hubert with any degree of certainty; and no work the brothers Van Eyck have left us (with the exception of the “Fount of Salvation” in the Prado Museum, Madrid, and this is the work of a school) shows a similar dogmatic and theological character, a like power of design and richness of thought that this “Lamb” does. Taken as a whole the work of the Van Eycks has a totally different tendency. It is frankly naturalistic in fact, as well as in intention. So that when Hubert is labelled a thinker, it is for no other reason than the wish to differentiate him, and to separate him from January How futile this distinction is, is made clear if we look into the results obtained by applying it as a criterion to the work of the two brothers. On not a single disputed painting has agreement been reached; and every painting that has been attributed to Hubert by one connoisseur, has been adjudged by others for equally good reasons to January

The catalogue of their work has been reconstructed more than twenty times. The altar-piece of the “Lamb” has been divided in a hundred different ways, and each in turn has been given to first one brother and then to the other over and over again. Each year sees a new theory proposed. After Waagen came James Weale; after Hymans, Dvorak, and after Stoerck, Wurzbach; and we are as far from the solution as ever. The masterpiece keeps its secret, and will probably never give it up. In any case, seeing that the whole painting was retouched at least twice during the sixteenth century, all evidence of individual technic must have been buried beneath these restorations; and in all likelihood the little points and peculiarities attributed to Hubert or to Jan, are really the work of Michael Coxie. But there is a larger and a wider question at issue than such idle wranglings that can never be settled, the question as to the effect and the nature of the artistic revolution to which the brothers Van Eyck have given their name.

What constitutes the altar-piece of the “Lamb” a unique monument in the history of art, and gives it its supreme interest in our eyes, is the fact that it unites in itself the styles and the genius of two opposing epochs. Whereas its general plan belongs to the Middle Ages, its execution, its manner of seeing things and putting them on canvas, are truly modern. The masterpiece has a double nature, so to speak. The genius of the Renaissance for what was concrete and realistic is wedded to the majesty of the Gothic and its love of the abstract. It shows us the wondrous blending of two principles that would seem necessarily to exclude each other, like the past and the future, and that we never meet with again save in opposition. It is this that constitutes the supreme interest of the work, that it contains the noblest expression of the old mystical genius together with the most powerful example of modern naturalism. In the sincerity, breadth, and daring of their naturalism, no one at any time nor of any school has excelled the Van Eycks. Nature, which prior to their day, men had looked at as through a veil of formulae and symbols, they seem suddenly to have unveiled. They invented, so to speak, the world of realities. The happenings of all sorts in the world of nature, the sylva rerum, with which they have endowed the art of painting, are always true to life. Landscapes, atmosphere, types, physiognomies, a wealth of studies and sketches of all sorts, rich materials, cloths, cimars (robes), copes, brilliancy of precious stones and works of the goldsmith’s art; all are copied to perfection, and the deftness of the work is beyond compare. The masterpiece inaugurates a new era in painting. If the object of the painter’s art is to depict the visible world, if his aim ought to be not so much the expression of a thought as to hold up the mirror to life, then for the first time in its history painting entered into its birthright in this altar-piece, and gave proof of its legitimacy in this first attempt. Life under all its sensible forms and aspects sweeps through this mighty scene like a motif, life with all its myriad changes and variety of moods, brushing aside the dry as dust ideograms and crumbling hieroglyphics of the Middle Ages.

The absolute is abandoned, and the relative brought into fashion. The eye is turned away from the vision of the ideal, but the feet are more firmly planted on the real. The word nature undergoes a change of meaning. Once it had been a vague Platonic idea, a something like the nominals and universals of the schools, which are understood by the intelligence rather than perceived by the senses. In that lofty plane of thought in which art in the thirteenth century loved to move, the universe existed really in the intellect. Henceforth, however, nature changes her aspect for the painter; he refrains from expressing any opinion as to the essence of things, but delights in all their accidental qualities. The actual, the fact, whether it be positive, complex, capricious, or odd, becomes of more importance than the abstract and immutable law. The absolute cause of all things is neglected in favor of the rich and glowing vegetation of nature; principles have less value than their consequences, less importance is given to types than individuals. The vast harvest of phenomena from the ever teeming field of reality and experience is henceforth open to art. A painting becomes what the painter has actually seen; what he has found in nature; the story of his feelings in the midst of things. In this a new kind of idealism replaces the old. And art, thus freed from the academism of the Gothic tradition, was not to slavishly copy nature, but to serve as a vehicle for the expression of the painter’s personality, and to act as the safest confidante of his emotional experiences.

The altar-piece at Ghent marks the triumph of this basic artistic revolution from which all modern art has sprung. Never was a richer shrine of nature and of life got together by a painter. In two hundred figures of every size, sex, race, and costume we behold a resume of the human race. We see before us all the beauty of the physical world, the woods, the fields, the rocks, the desert places, a geography of earth with its climates and its flora, palms, cacti, and aloes (which foolishly has led some to believe that Hubert must have travelled in the East). And the world of art is not forgotten; styles of architecture, towers, cupolas, statues, bas-reliefs, are all brought in. In a word, life out-of-doors and within doors, with all its social activities and moral coloring, is portrayed. There are interiors, such as the room of the Blessed Virgin, a young Flemish maiden, with its prie-Dieu, its nicely tiled floor, its washstand and basin, and its open window looking out on to the pointed roofs of a row of brick houses. There are portraits of a marvellous realism, such as those of the donor and his wife; epic figures, such as God the Father under the guise of Charlemagne crowned with a triple tiara, type of the pontiff-king; and there are figures full of charm and poetry, such as the singing angels (Berlin museum), symbolizing the harmonies of paradise, under the form of entrancing minstrelsy, or of the chanting of choir boys. Other figures are fearful in their naturalism, such as the figures of our first parents (Brussels museum) which would suffice alone to immortalize their creator, because of their audacious nudity, their stiff and awkward manner, and their eloquent ugliness.

Such a transformation, of course, exceeds the powers of any one man, or even of two brothers. And like all great works, the altar-piece of Ghent is but the result of the labors of more than one generation. It was not a local movement; its influences were at work up and down throughout Christendom.

In Italy the work of Jacopo della Quercia, of Ghiberti, the frescoes of Masolino and of Masaccio (1428), are contemporary with the labors of the Van Eycks, and bear traces of similar tendencies. But the birthplace of the movement was not on Italian soil. It is in France we find the earliest evidences of it, about the beginning of the fourteenth century. A few statues, like the Visitation group in the great doorway at Reims (1310), the tombs of St. Denis, the portraits of King Charles V and his wife Eleanor (in the Louvre), mark the last stages in the victorious progress. The same school which a century earlier had developed the Gothic ideal, was about to produce by a natural evolution the new principles and the new methods. An important factor in this evolution was the creation of the Duchies of Berry and of Burgundy, and the alliance of Flanders and Burgundy by marriage (1384). At the Court of the Valois, the most brilliant in the world, famous for its voluptuousness, its elegance, and its worship of all the arts of life, and under the patronage of its princes, no less famous for their dissolute lives than for their artistic taste and love of luxury, there rapidly grew up a school of painters, sculptors, goldsmiths, and miniaturists, cosmopolitans by birth, but Parisian by education, who were the nucleus of the Renaissance.

The larger part of the paintings, frescoes, and stained glass of this epoch have perished; but the miniatures supply all the proof we need. Especially in the manuscripts made at the time for the Duc de Berry do we find the links of this glorious history. Many of the books collected by this incomparable Maecenas have come down to us; some of them illustrated by Andre Beauneveu, Jacquemart of Hesdin, or Jacques Cohn of Antwerp. But the most important of all is the seignorial MS.—one of the treasures of Chantilly—known as the “Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry”. This wonderful book was adorned from 1413 to 1416 by three artists; “the three illuminator-brothers” spoken of by Guillebert of Metz, the brothers de Limbourg or simply the Limbourgs. Nearly all the poetic fancy of the Van Eycks is already outlined in this “Book of Hours”, especially on their landscape side; and whereas the Limbourgs kept to the country around Liege, the Van Eycks followed the same route, and doubtless experienced the same influences. But there is something more. Another MS., “The Hours of Turin“, which was unfortunately destroyed in the fire at the library of that town, January 20, 1904, belonged successively to the Duc de Berry (d. 1416) and to Duke William IV of Bavaria-Hainault. And it has been proved that Hubert van Eyck spent some time in the latter’s service. Paul Durrieu has given very weighty reasons for attributing the MS. to him, and for believing that he began it for the Due de Berry. Thus the art of the Van Eycks would be but the culminating point of the great Renaissance movement inaugurated at the Court of the Valois in France, and which reached its apogee in 1400. Perhaps this was what the Italian Bishop Facius meant to imply when in 1456 he spoke of Jan van Eyck as Johannes Gallicus.

This is a partial solution of the enigma of the altar-piece. Hubert and Jan van Eyck are but continuators, masters indeed, of an art that began before them and without them. But what was it they added that caused the new style in art to date only from their work? If we are to credit Vasari, Van Mander, and all the historical writers, their great discovery was the art of painting with oils. Painting with oil had been discovered long before; the monk Theophilus gives a recipe for it in the eleventh century. And as we have seen, the new aestheticism had been already formulated in the miniatures of the Limbourgs and of the Van Eycks themselves. Whatever importance in art its material and mechanical methods may have, it would be too humiliating to make it depend entirely on the particular fluid, water, gum, or albumen used in mixing the colors. Moreover, on canvases 500 years old from which all moisture has long since dried up he would be a daring critic who would venture to assert the proportion of oil or distemper used by the artist. To build one’s criticism on such a doubtful principle is like seeking the scent of the “Roses of Sadi”. The real merit of the Van Eycks is elsewhere. By a chain of circumstances (The Battle of Agincourt, the madness of Charles VI, and the minority of Charles VII), France was brought to the edge of ruin, and suddenly lost control of the movement that it had begun.

Comfort, art, luxury began to cluster around the new fortunes of the Duchy of Burgundy, as the home of wealth in the North. Ghent, Bruges, Brussels, Antwerp became the centers of the new school. In these new towns of little culture and traditional refinement, and lacking in reserve (Taine, “Philosophie de l’Art aux Pays-Bas”—description of the festivals known as the Voeu du faisan), Naturalism, freed from the restraints French taste would have imposed on it, was enabled to grow at its ease and spread without restriction. The Germanic element which had already shown itself in such men as Beauneveu, Malouel, the Limbourgs, burst out, and carried everything before it in the work of the Van Eycks. For the first time the genius of the North shook off all those cosmopolitan influences which had hitherto refined it, and gave itself free scope.

It paused not to think of what had gone before, and it was not concerned with such things as taste, nobility, or beauty. Such preoccupations as these, as the antique began to have an influence, became more and more the distinguishing characteristics and limitation of Italian naturalism. It is enough to compare the ugly yet touching figures of Adam and Eve by Jan van Eyck, with those by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel to be convinced of this. On the one side there is realism, but the painter has scruples, reserves, a sense of modesty; on the other there is absolute crudity, what we might call naturalism pure and simple. What does this mean, but that painting, which had hitherto been a universal, international art, is beginning to localize itself; and that what had hitherto been a European, or better still, Western, color-language is about to split up into many dialects and national modes of speech? It is the real glory of the Van Eycks, that they emancipated the genius of the races of the North and gave it its first full expression. During a whole century (1430-1530) the school they founded at Bruges was always producing new works and renewing its own strength. During a century, painters from Flanders, from Holland, and Germany—Petrus Cristus, Gerard de St-Jean, Ouwater, Hugo van der Goes, Roger van der Weyden, Memlinck, Gerard David, Martin Schöngauer, Dürer, Lucas of Leyden—never ceased to draw their inspiration more or less directly from their work. In 1445 the Catalonian Luis Dalmau made a copy of the altar-piece of Ghent. In France, Jean Fouquet, Nicolas Froment, on the banks of the Loire and of the Rhone, were disciples of Jan van Eyck. Even Italy did not escape their sovereign influence. As early as the middle of the fifteenth century paintings by Jan van Eyck were being treasured at Naples and at Urbino.

Antonello of Messina went to study art in Flanders. Ghirlandajo imitated the famous Portinari altar-piece by H. van der Goes, and whenever an Italian painter relaxed a moment his straining after art to snatch a breath of gayety or a lesson in realism, it was always to the Flemish school he turned; always, until the triumph of the antique was assured, and Raphael and Michelangelo, by the constraining revelation of its beauty, had restored for a time the reign of the ideal. Their triumph was, however, short-lived; the pagan and aristocratic ideal of art and life, with all its loftiness and rigidity, began to give way from the beginning of the seventeenth century, with its new schools at Antwerp and Amsterdam, before the naturalism of the North, before the more homely, hearty, and winning genius of the Van Eycks. It is therefore impossible to exaggerate the importance of their work, which, besides occupying a unique position throughout the fifteenth century, led the way in the evolution which two centuries later produced such painters as Rubens and Rembrandt.

The following is a list of the signed and dated works of Jan van Eyck: The “Consecration of St. Thomas Becket” (1421—Chatsworth); “The Madonna” (1432—Ince Hall); portraits of two men (1432-1433—National Gallery); “Arnolfini and his Wife” (1434—National Gallery); “Portrait of Jan de Leewe” (1436—Vienna); “The Virgin”, with kneeling figure of Canon van der Paele (1436—Bruges); “St. Barbara” (1437—Antwerp); “Head of Christ” (1438—Berlin); “The Artist’s Wife” (1439—Bruges); “The Virgin” (1439—Antwerp). The principal works without date or signature that can be certainly attributed to the brothers Van Eyck are “Portrait of an Old Man” (Vienna); “The Man with the Pinks” (Berlin); “The Madonna of Lucca” (Frankfort); “The Madonna” executed for Chancellor Rolin (Louvre); “The Virgin” (Burleigh House, Exeter); “The Virgin” (Paris, Rothschild); triptych, not completed (Van Hellenpute collection, Mechlin).


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