WEYDEN, Rogier van der
(b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles)
Seven Sacraments (central panel)1445-50
Oil on oak panel, 200 x 97 cm
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp
Rogier's task was to show both the seven sacraments and also the Crucifixion, the fundamental act of redemption. He solved the problem by moving the separate actions into a basilica with three naves. The side aisles provide room for the sacraments, shown simultaneously; only the most important sacrament, the Eucharist, is taking place in the central section at the rood screen altar, which means that it is directly related to the sacrificial death of Christ.
While the actions of the sacraments are accommodated in a church with some degree of plausibility - though a dying man's bed would not, of course, have been moved to a chapel for extreme unction - the Crucifixion group belongs to a different plane of reality, as is made abundantly clear by its much larger proportions, suitable to its significance.
At the same time, the artist tries not to make the difference seem disruptive, and with that end in view confines the large figures mainly to the central panel. If we look past them to the priest at the altar in the background, the difference of scale could be taken as perspective reduction. It is only to the left, where the cloak of the large figure of a female saint almost touches the priest performing the sacrament of baptism, that the problem seems not to have been entirely solved.
The church building with the sacraments here represents the church as an institution, but in its architectural details it echoes St. Gudule's, Brussels' main church. The idea for the view into the depths at the back, seen at a slight angle through the central nave, came from a work by Jan van Eyck, his Church Madonna, probably painted around 1440 and now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Working from this model, Rogier produced one of the most lofty and convincing church interiors of Early Netherlandish painting.
With its view into the main nave and side aisles, its great depth, and the more or less appropriate proportions of the smaller figures, it was the inspiration behind countless later Netherlandish church interiors, in particular those painted around 1600 in Antwerp. In dividing up the areas of the painting, Rogier - again following Jan van Eyck, in this case his Madonna Triptych now in Dresden used the triptych formula, but made some unusual changes to it: the lower side panels can no longer be folded over the central panel, and instead the outline of the entire altarpiece matches the building it portrays, with the inverted T shape also echoing a common feature of Netherlandish altarpieces, the raised center panel. Perhaps this idea came from carved retables, which are frequently raised in the middle and employ motifs of sacral architecture in their structural design.