EYCK, Jan van
(b. before 1395, Maaseik, d. before 1441, Bruges)

The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin

Wood, 66 x 62 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

The donator of this painting is Nicolas Rolin, Chancellor of Burgundy and Brabant. He established the Hôtel-Dieu hospital at Beaune where Rogier van der Weyden executed the famous Last Judgment.

Nicolas Rolin, who commissioned this work, was a man with a forceful personality. Despite his humble background, he was highly intelligent and eventually rose to hold the highest offices of State. For over forty years he was Philip the Good's right-hand man, and one of the principal architects of the monarch's success. Van Eyck painted him when he was already in his sixties. His face, though marked by the heavy responsibilities he has had to bear, still fascinates the viewer with the sense of energy and will-power which it projects. Rolin is wearing a gold brocade jacket trimmed with mink. He kneels at prayer on the left of the composition. His gaze is pensive, looking as though he has just raised his eyes from his book of hours.

On the right is the seated figure of the Virgin. Wrapped in a voluminous red robe, she is presenting the Infant Jesus to the chancellor while a hovering angel holds a magnificent crown above her head. The figures have been brought together in the loggia of an Italianate palace. The three arches through which the space opens out behind them seem rather large in relation to their immediate surroundings. They give first onto a small garden with lilies and roses symbolizing Mary's virtues. Slightly farther back are two small figures, one standing at an oblique angle to the viewer and the other with his back to us. Near them are two peacocks, symbols of immortality, but perhaps also of the pride to which such a powerful man as Chancellor Rolin might well succumb.

The most surprising feature in this splendid picture is without doubt the townscape that stretches out beyond the loggia. The crenellated battlements indicate that the palace is in fact a fortress, built on the edge of an escarpment. Below, a broad meandering river with an island in its midst flows through the heart of a city. The humbler areas of the town lie to the left, behind Chancellor Rolin. On the right, behind the Virgin, are the wealthy quarters, with a profusion of buildings, dominated by an imposing Gothic church. Countless tiny figures are flocking towards this part of town, across the bridge and through the roads and squares. Meanwhile on the river, boats are arriving and putting into shore. It is as if all mankind, united by faith, were travelling in pilgrimage towards this city and its cathedral. In the distance, the horizon is closed off by snow-capped mountains under a pinky-yellow sky. In the opinion of Charles de Tolnay, this painting represents a comprehensive vision of the entire universe.