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What secrets are hidden by the symbolism of Jan van Eyck: “the Madonna of Canon van der pale»

In 15th-century Flanders, the van Eyck brothers were famous for their skill, innovation, and desire for changes in art and for the break with the Gothic that had already occurred in other European countries. All these qualities are perfectly combined in the monumental work of Jan van Eyck – “the Madonna of Canon van der pale”. It hides mysterious symbolic elements, as well as a self-portrait of the master himself.

The artist Jan van Eyck was born in 1390 in Maaseik, near Maastricht. He worked at the court of the Bavarian Dukes in the Hague, then was in the service of the Duke of Burgundy Philip the Good. Together with the court service, van Eyck also engaged in private commissions (the famous Ghent altarpiece and portraits of private clients). The “Madonna of Chancellor Rolen” was written for the Burgundian Chancellor Nicholas Rolen. The visual and thematic details of this painting are very similar to the details of another work by van Eyck – “the Madonna of Canon van der pale”. After the Ghent altarpiece, it is the second largest surviving work by van Eyck and the only one in a horizontal frame.

“The Madonna of Canon van der pale»
The “Madonna of Canon van der pale” is a large – scale work by van Eyck (141 x 176.5 cm), painted in oil on oak in early 1434-36.it depicts Canon Joris van der pale himself kneeling before the Madonna and Child. Next to the Canon is his patron Saint, Saint George. Saint Donatian is depicted on the left. The appearance of this figure was also dictated by the specifics of the order, because the work was intended for the temple consecrated in his honor.
Van Eyck’s” Madonna of the Canon van der pale ” is characterized by an innovative use of illusionism and a complex spatial composition. The panel is inserted in an original oak frame, which contains several Latin inscriptions (including the signature of van Eyck, the coats of arms of the van der pale father and mother families, the date of completion, the name of the customer, and texts relating to Saint George and Saint Donatian).

The upper border contains phrases from the Book of Wisdom comparing Mary to an “unblemished mirror”. Figures, the smallest details of clothing, the architecture of the room and Windows are depicted with a high degree of realism. The panel is distinguished by the refinement of clothing, including elegant detailed images of fur, silk and brocade, as well as complex and detailed religious iconography.
Heroes
Van der pale
The panel was commissioned by van der pale to decorate the altar. Joris van der pale-clerk of the papal office, who made a successful career as a priest. The work had some memorial value: van der pale was a wealthy clergyman from Bruges, but already elderly and seriously ill. In the painting, van der pale is dressed in the garb of a medieval Canon, devoutly reading the book of hours. Glasses in the hands of van der pale on the one hand symbolize education and chastity, and on the other – refer to the fallacy of human feelings. The master of realism van Eyck even managed to show some physical nuances of the customer: for example, cracked aging skin, enlarged temporal arteries, swollen fingers. As Church records from the 15th century prove, van der pale suffered from temporal arteritis, and also suffered from severe pain in his hands and forearms.

st george
Saint George stands in richly decorated armor and looks slightly relaxed and even casual. He lifts his helmet and left hand to introduce van der pale. Art historian Max Jakob Friedlander notes that Saint George seems indecisive and unsure of himself in such a solemn and restrained environment (unusual for him). His face makes a striking contrast to van der pale’s aging and wrinkled face.

Saint Donatian
Saint Donatian (Archbishop of Rheims), dressed in bright clothes, stands on the left. Van Eyck’s skill in using oil paints can be seen in the ornamentation of the characters ‘ outfits: for example, in the image of the threads of the blue-and-gold embroidered mitre of Saint Donatian, in the interweaving of the Oriental carpet, as well as in the stubble and wrinkles on van der pale’s aging face. Its brocade is embroidered with images of saints Peter and Paul. In his left hand he holds a bejeweled processional cross, in his right-his personal attribute-a wheel with five lighted candles, Recalling the incident when he almost drowned while being thrown into the Tiber, and Pope Dionysius saved him by throwing a wheel from his cart, which he was able to use as a lifeline.

Dema Maria with Baby
The virgin Mary is enthroned with the infant Christ on her lap in the interior of the Church. The virgin’s throne is decorated with carvings of Adam and eve, the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, and scenes from the old Testament. The apse in which she sits adds an illusion of depth and three-dimensionality. The Madonna holds the baby In her right hand and the flower in her left. She is dressed in a voluminous red dress, and her figure is surrounded by Eastern patterns of an overhanging tapestry. Interesting detail: a parrot on the lap of the Madonna. The parrot was sometimes used as an emblem of the virgin Mary, but the parrot and the flower together symbolize the garden of Eden, accented with carved figures of Adam eve. The palette in the flower (white, red, blue) represents purity, love and humility, its petals are an attribute of the cross and the sacrifice of Christ. The figure of the mother of God is very rich in iconography: for example, the carvings on the left refer to the death of Christ, and the elements on the right refer to His Resurrection. The white cloth of the Infant is draped over the red mantle of Mary-an attribute of the Eucharist festival and a reference to the death and resurrection of Christ.
The virgin and Child can also be seen in the reflection of George’s helmet. Van Eyck demonstrates his skill by including his self-portrait in a reflection on a knight’s shield. The artist depicts himself standing at an easel in a red turban.

Location of work
The painting remained in the walls of the native Church until the end of the French revolution, and was one of the most famous artistic attractions in Bruges. By the way, this panel was highly praised in his diary in 1521 by Albrecht dürer. During the looting of aristocratic estates during the occupation of the southern Netherlands by the French revolutionary army, the painting was moved to the Louvre in 1794 (along with many other Dutch and Flemish works). In 1816, it was returned to Bruges, where it remains to this day (in the local Groening Museum). The van Eyck panel is called a “masterpiece of masterpieces”, it is considered one of the most fully realized and ambitious works of the artist.

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