Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Legacy of Petrus Christus in the Shadow of Jan van Eyck

For a time, art historians such as Panofsky thought that the work of Petrus Christus was a direct result of Jan van Eyck’s influence.[i] While it is probable that Christus was influenced by Van Eyck, an artist as talented as the former should not go down in history in the shadow of another artist, not even one as lionized as Jan van Eyck. In fact, the popular notion that Christus was a pupil of Van Eyck’s is not accurate.[ii] As more of Christus’s work has been discovered, it is clear his style was influenced by many other artists, including Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden, in addition to the popularity of a certain style of painting at the time.[iii] There are many differences between Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus’s work that may seem subtle at first glance, but when studied individually, it is apparent that the subtleties in the piece affect the whole composition, proving Christus’s work stands independent of Jan van Eyck.[iv]

By studying their paintings, you can see that the style of Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus are similar, but it is likely Christus was not emulating Van Eyck so much as employing a style that was popular at the time.[v] After all, in the aftermath of Van Eyck’s death, Christus was the next prominent painter in Bruges, and he had to appeal to the consumers that Van Eyck left behind.[vi] As an example of this, Jan van Eyck’s signature usually included the Latin inscription “ALS ICH CAN,” which means “As best I can,” and Christus often used similar inscriptions to signify his work.[vii] This similarity may seem like an emulation of Jan van Eyck, but it is more likely that it is one or both of these propositions: it is an homage to an artist whom he knew and respected, or he was attempting to pander to an audience that admired Van Eyck’s work.[viii]

To analyze this argument, I will use Jan van Eyck’s “The Annunciation” (1434) (Fig. 1) and Petrus Christus’s “The Annunciation” (1452) (Fig. 2) as examples. Although it is the same scene by these two artists, there are many stylistic and iconographical differences that are not immediately apparent. Not only will I be using historical record to supplement my argument, but I will compare and contrast the paintings using formal analysis and iconography to specifically discuss the underlying spiritual meanings and biblical references in each of the paintings. For both artists, the story of their rise to artistic popularity began in Bruges.

Jan van Eyck’s work is legendary now, and it was when he was alive. It is not clear when Van Eyck was born, but it is known that he began his work as an artist in service of John of Bavaria in Holland around 1422.[ix] He worked in this position until 1425, when John of Bavaria died, and he took up employment in Lille around 1430 as Philip the Good’s court artist.[x] There is record of Philip scolding his accountants when they expressed their unease with Van Eyck’s hefty salary – Philip insisted that Van Eyck deserved every penny.[xi] He also kept Jan van Eyck in his employment until the artist’s death in 1441.[xii] His respect for Van Eyck is also shown in the other duties Philip the Good bestowed on him – not only did he serve as the court painter and a member of the Tournai painters’ guild, but also a diplomat.[xiii] In fact, there were many occasions in which he travelled to distant lands as an envoy of the court in Philip’s name.[xiv]

Petrus Christus lived in Bruges after Philip the Good had forced his hand on the city and brought back order in the midst of cataclysmic political unrest.[xv] Bruges was an economic hub during this time and therefore attracted many artists, including Christus.[xvi] Christus soon became so prominent and wealthy in Bruges that he and his wife were inducted in the Bruges Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree sometime between 1458-1463.[xvii] Being a member of this confraternity gave him an advantage from a business perspective since he was so closely knit with the elite.[xviii] He was commissioned for many important project by many of the members, even the city magistrate of Bruges.[xix]

To further supplement this argument, art historian Maryan Ainsworth of the MET has said:

“When Christus’s oeuvre was rediscovered in the nineteenth century, it was rather pejoratively assessed as eclectic and largely derivative of Jan van Eyck. More recent scholarship, while acknowledging van Eyck’s influence, has focused on Christus’s inventive approach to accommodating the wishes of his patrons in Bruges, as the artist adjusted his style to suit their tastes. His meticulous technique is related to that of manuscript illumination; he was most assured working on a diminutive scale, but became increasingly adept at volumetric description in larger works.” [xx]

To begin the artistic comparison, I will be looking at Jan van Eyck’s “Annunciation” (1434). This painting depicts, as the title says, an Annunciation scene. Pictured is the Virgin Mary and the archangel Gabriel.[xxi] The viewer can tell that this is the Virgin and the archangel Gabriel because this was a scene that was extremely popular in painting at the time and certain attributes specific to these biblical characters are depicted, such as Gabriel’s extravagant wings and cape and the Virgin’s wardrobe and hairstyle. The Virgin is shown with her hands up in both praise and surprise at the archangel’s visit.[xxii] There are two inscriptions: one next to Gabriel, stating, “Ave gratia plena,” meaning “Hail, full of grace,” from Luke 1:28, and one next to Mary, which is upside down so it could be read by God, stating, “Ecce ancilla domini,” from Luke 1:38.[xxiii] A white dove is depicted heading straight for Mary, symbolizing the Holy Ghost.[xxiv]

Van Eyck uses both natural and supernatural light to his advantage.[xxv] Behind the dove are seven rays of light, symbolizing “the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that Christ will receive as a Branch of the Tree of Jesse (Isaiah II: 2-3): wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, purity, and fear.”[xxvi] The number seven is repeated throughout the composition: there are seven open lilies, which symbolize the Virgin’s purity.[xxvii] The Virgin is shown in a what could be read as a movement to stand, which is a concept we have talked about in class. The concept of using implied movement in a piece of art would further anchor the viewer in their Christian beliefs, because it is reaffirming that this event actually happened. Another concept in the painting that we have talked about in class is the notion of Mary as a priest, or the Priesthood of the Virgin, which is the concept that Mary handles the body of Christ just as priests do, and within the Virgin is the Trinity.

The major theme of the painting is the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament.[xxviii] The church shown is not real, which is clear once the architecture is analyzed.[xxix] The church has Romanesque rounded arches at the top and Gothic pointed arches at the bottom, subtly noting the passage of time.[xxx] In addition, the single window at the top of the church is a symbol of the Old Testament belief in the one and only God, and the three windows behind the Virgin represent the New Testament faith in the Holy Trinity.[xxxi] Van Eyck also uses hieratic scale in the painting, making the figures extremely large when considering the scale of the architecture.[xxxii] This has been used in Van Eyck’s other paintings to show how important the figures are and, in the case of Mary, to display the concept of Mary with the Church.[xxxiii]

On the floor are inscriptions of the Zodiac, which was meant to symbolize that “God had dominion over the physical universe, including the movement of the planets.”[xxxiv] A few of the scenes have been identified and determined to hold significant meaning to the scene.[xxxv] Virgo, Aries and Capricorn are depicted; Virgo is under the Virgin, as it traditionally symbolizes her; Aries is under Gabriel, symbolizing the month of March, which, in Christian thought, is the month the Annunciation took place; and Capricorn to signify the birth of Christ in December.[xxxvi] In fact, all the signs are depicted except Leo, which has been speculated to be because “the creatures that inhabit the roundels are impure hybrids that mirror the corruption and chaos of the cosmos before the advent of Christ. The lion is unaltered because Leo is the house of the sun and thus associated with Christ, who is both the ‘light of the world’ and the ‘sun of justice’ mentioned in the Old Testament (Malachi 4:2).”[xxxvii]

In this piece, Van Eyck gives us a very specific point of view, yet our eye tends to wander around the piece.[xxxviii] This is because he does not utilize one point perspective in the piece and there is a clear “lack of concern for the linear unity of several uniformly designed, but disparate, individual planes.”[xxxix] This is in contrast to Petrus Christus’s The Annunciation (1452). By this time, Christus may or may not have been exposed to Italian art theory – we do not have any solid information to know one way or the other.[xl] However, we can deduce that Christus’s approach to his Annunciation piece is very different from Jan van Eyck’s approach.[xli]

However, let’s start with the basic visual similarities. Since this was a popular biblical scene to depict during this period, there are many things in Van Eyck’s painting that are also in Christus’s painting. The positioning of Gabriel and the Virgin are similar; there is the dove symbolizing the Holy Ghost; Mary was interrupted during her reading by the angel; etc. However, Van Eyck and Christus each have very different motives and themes within their respective Annunciation pieces.

Christus utilizes single point perspective in this work of art.[xlii] Upton even claims that he is the first Northern artist to ever do this; specifically, “to unify his perspective by making all parallel lines of related planes converge either at the same eye level or a single point.”[xliii] Christus’s use of space and objects invite the viewer in and even interact with them in a way.[xliv] For example, Christus’s use of geometry and space invite the viewer into the painting; our eye travels through the space, guided by the sharp lines of the shapes in the painting, including the angel’s wings.[xlv] Our eye then goes to the doorframe, back into the space, but the blue horizon beyond the door grabs our attention again and again.[xlvi] A major difference between Christus and Van Eyck is “the spiritual content of Christus’s paintings and his means of deliberately closing the gap between image and viewer, a distance that was so assiduously maintained by the precious nature of Jan’s art.”[xlvii] Therefore, I believe he was taking a popular biblical reference and using it to play with perspective and space.

Upton also compares and contrasts Christus’s Annunciation with Rogier van der Weyden’s Annunciation.[xlviii] This is helpful to point out, because Van der Weyden’s Annunciation is full of drama and implied movement and, in comparison, Christus’s Gabriel and Mary seem a bit static.[xlix] However, Upton argues that Christus makes up for the lack of dramatic intrigue with differentiation in shapes and spaces that all come together in a way that opens the painting up to the viewer.[l] It seems to me that Jan van Eyck’s sits somewhere in the middle of these two pieces; the drama is not as extreme as Van der Weyden’s but the figures are not as puppet-like as Christus’s. I do not believe that this shows a lack of skill on Christus’s part; I believe he was more so focused on depth, structure and the space where the scene is taking place. An example of something similar to this, though later on and in a different region, is the work of Pieter Saenredam. Saenredam was primarily focused on architecture in his work, which is evident from the detail of the structure and the attention to light and realism.[li] What Saenredam does not pay attention to as clearly is the people in his paintings; in fact, Saenredam usually just had apprentices go in and paint the people in so he would not have to do it.[lii] I find it likely that Christus was preoccupied by a similar idea; the structure, depth and perspective being more important than the drama of the scene.

In relation to Christus’s use of depth and background, I would also like to use two pieces we talked about in class as examples: Jan van Eyck’s Man in a Red Turban (Fig. 3) and Petrus Christus’s Portrait of a Carthusian (Fig. 4). This comparison also shows the importance of depth, space and geometry in Christus’s work compared to other prominent artists during this short frame of time. Portrait of a Carthusian has a background included while Man in a Red Turban does not. This gives Van Eyck’s piece the sense that the man is popping out of the frame, while the background in Christus’s gives the viewer a sense of the setting. These are two very different but equally impactful artistic choices.

Whether he was exposed to Italian art theory at the time or not, Christus introducing such a monumental idea to the North during this time while still staying true to his own style is incredible to me. Art historian Joel Upton expands upon the importance of Petrus Christus’s art at this time:

“Since he is the only panel painter whose oeuvre is known who lived in Bruges between the time of Jan van Eyck’s death in 1441 and the arrival of Hans Memling in 1465, his art provides a singular record of the evolving relationship of painter, painting, and patron at the very center of Flemish art. Rather than admit to Jan van Eyck’s unfollowable footsteps and leap to the next island of genius, we might imagine Christus’s productive accommodation to and transformation of the Eyckian legacy as itself a substantial part of the answer to the question of what happened to painting in Flanders after its most celebrated pioneer had died […] Pushed to its limit Christus’s mimetic illusionism served less to foster public claims of church and state than it did actually to engage the private piety and psychological involvement of the single patron.”[liii]

While Jan van Eyck’s and Petrus Christus’s styles seem similar on the surface, Christus had his own style that was influenced by many different artists in addition to Jan van Eyck, as well as other external factors. We also have to remember that apprentices often learned by emulating the style of a master painter, as we discussed in class. This was a principle called aemulatio, and painters would often use this concept of emulating a masters’ work of art to build their own skills. Although the idea that Christus was Van Eyck’s student has been proven likely false, it is not improbable to propose that Christus emulated master painters such as Van Eyck as he was refining his own skills and becoming a master painter himself. I also think it is fair to claim that as he grew older and was exposed to different kinds of painting and art theories, his style evolved and grew to be independent from other masters at the time, using depth, color and space to draw the viewer into his piece.

In conclusion, both the pieces are works of art by two very different, highly skilled master artists. As discussed, while their styles are similar, it is more likely that Christus employed a style that Jan van Eyck popularized and Christus then used to his advantage after Van Eyck’s death. Again, it is probable that Christus’s work looked so much like Van Eyck’s, especially in the beginning, because of the practice of aemulatio. In any case, Christus’s use of depth and geometry brings a whole new perspective to his paintings that I find completely different from that of Jan van Eyck’s perspective. While their style of painting makes it obvious that these artists were prominent during the same specific time period, their work should go down in history as the work of two independent master artists.

Brooke Mason

For Dr. John Decker’s Northern Renaissance course, 2017.

(Fig 1.) Jan van Eyck. The Annunciation, Oil transferred from wood to canvas, c. 1434. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. 93 x 37 cm.

Annunciation_-_Jan_van_Eyck_-_1434_-_NG_Wash_DC

(Fig. 2) Petrus Christus. The Annunciation. Wood, c. 1452. Groeninge Museum, Bruges, Belgium. 85.5 x 54.8cm.

the-annunciation-1452.jpg!Large

(Fig. 3) Jan van Eyck. Portrait of a Man (Self portrait?), 1433. National Gallery, London. 25.5 x 19cm.

Portrait_of_a_Man_in_a_Turban_(Jan_van_Eyck)_with_frame

(Fig. 4) Petrus Christus. Portrait of a Carthusian. Oil on wood. 1446. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 29.2 cm × 21.6 cm ( 11 12 in ×  8 12 in).

300px-Christus_carthusian

[i] Panofsky, Erwin. Early Netherlandish Painting. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953), 100.

[ii] Ainsworth, Maryan W., and Maximilian P. J. Martens. Petrus Christus: Renaissance master of Bruges. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994), 15.

[iii] Ainsworth, Maryan W., and Maximilian P. J. Martens. Petrus Christus: Renaissance master of Bruges. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994), 154.

[iv] Upton, Joel M., Petrus Christus: his place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish painting (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 6.

[v] Upton, Joel M., Petrus Christus: his place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish painting (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 4-6.

[vi] Upton, Joel M., Petrus Christus: his place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish painting (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 4-6.

[vii] Ainsworth, Maryan W., and Maximilian P. J. Martens. Petrus Christus: Renaissance master of Bruges. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994), 28.

[viii] Ainsworth, Maryan W., and Maximilian P. J. Martens. Petrus Christus: Renaissance master of Bruges. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994), 28.

[ix] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 1.

[x] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 1.

[xi] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 1.

[xii] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 1.

[xiii] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 1.

[xiv] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 1.

[xv]Ainsworth, Maryan W., and Maximilian P. J. Martens. Petrus Christus: Renaissance master of Bruges. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994), 3-8.

[xvi] Ainsworth, Maryan W., and Maximilian P. J. Martens. Petrus Christus: Renaissance master of Bruges. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994), 6.

[xvii] Ainsworth, Maryan W., and Maximilian P. J. Martens. Petrus Christus: Renaissance master of Bruges. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994), 16.

[xviii] Ainsworth, Maryan W., and Maximilian P. J. Martens. Petrus Christus: Renaissance master of Bruges. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994), 16.

[xix] Ainsworth, Maryan W., and Maximilian P. J. Martens. Petrus Christus: Renaissance master of Bruges. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994), 16.

[xx] Meagher, Jennifer. Based on original work by Maryan W. Ainsworth. “Petrus Christus (active by 1444, died 1475/76).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/petr/hd_petr.htm (December 2008).

[xxi] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 2.

[xxii] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 2.

[xxiii] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 2.

[xxiv] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 3.

[xxv] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 3.

[xxvi] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 3.

[xxvii] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 3.

[xxviii] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 2.

[xxix] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 2.

[xxx] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 2.

[xxxi] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 2.

[xxxii] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 2.

[xxxiii] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 2.

[xxxiv] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 3.

[xxxv] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 3.

[xxxvi] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 3.

[xxxvii] Hand, John Oliver. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, (Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 3.

[xxxviii] Upton, Joel M., Petrus Christus: his place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish painting (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 36.

[xxxix] Upton, Joel M., Petrus Christus: his place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish painting (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 36.

[xl] Upton, Joel M., Petrus Christus: his place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish painting (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 37.

[xli] Upton, Joel M., Petrus Christus: his place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish painting (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 36-37.

[xlii] Upton, Joel M., Petrus Christus: his place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish painting (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 36-37.

[xliii] Upton, Joel M., Petrus Christus: his place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish painting (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 36-37.

[xliv] Upton, Joel M., Petrus Christus: his place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish painting (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 36-39.

[xlv] Upton, Joel M., Petrus Christus: his place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish painting (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 36-39.

[xlvi] Upton, Joel M., Petrus Christus: his place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish painting (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 36-39.

[xlvii] Ainsworth, Maryan W., and Maximilian P. J. Martens. Petrus Christus: Renaissance master of Bruges. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994), 26.

[xlviii] Upton, Joel M., Petrus Christus: his place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish painting (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 38.

[xlix] Upton, Joel M., Petrus Christus: his place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish painting (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 38.

[l] Joel M. Upton, Petrus Christus: his place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish painting (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 38.

[li] Kemp, Martin. “Simon Stevin and Pieter Saenredam: A Study of Mathematics and Vision in Dutch Science and Art.” The Art Bulletin 68, no. 2 (1986): 237-238. doi:10.2307/3050934.

[lii] Giltay, Jeroen. “Pieter Saenredam as Portraitist.” Master Drawings 15, no. 1 (1977): 26-27.

[liii] Upton, Joel M., Petrus Christus: his place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish painting (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 6.

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