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

The Madonna with Canon van der Paele

Oil on wood, 122 x 157 cm
Groeninge Museum, Bruges

Here the visual and thematic elements are similar to those of the Chancellor Rolin Madonna. Van Eyck is concerned with showing the presence of a vision and therefore of illustrating the reality of God in our world. Just as Nicolas Rolin is shown in his palace, in the midst of an identifiable environment that seems to make his vision of the Virgin all the more real, so Canon van der Paele is shown in the choir of the collegiate church of St. Donatian in Bruges, where he is being presented to the Virgin by St. George and St. Donatian. Hans Belting is of the opinion that this picture once hung in the choir of the now destroyed church. This would mean that the depicted location mirrored the real location. Van der Paele would therefore have been able to see himself in the very place of his depicted vision and so "prove" to the world at large the reality of his divine experience.

The exquisite brocades, furs, and silks are shown in an extraordinarily lifelike and brilliant way, a way that confirms their reality, their tangibility. On the other hand, the reliefs and sculptures on the capitals in the background and on the Virgin's throne all allude to Christ's salvation of humanity. The depictions on the throne of Adam and Eve, Cain killing Abel, and Samson fighting the lion, together with the depiction on the capitals of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, create an Old Testament framework which allows the observer to reflect on the mercy of God, who sent his son, Christ the Redeemer, into the world. Redemption from sin (Cain killing his brother) is possible only through the power of faith (Samson overpowering the lion). The goodness and grace of God "at the moment of truth" (Abraham sacrificing Isaac) serves as proof of the redeeming power and presence of servants of God both celestial (St. George) and mortal (Canon van der Paele).

This is how van der Paele might have expressed the message of the painting-that paradise was at hand-a message confirmed by its being set in a very real but also sacred context. The Virgin is pictures holding a nosegay and her son a parrot - unmistakable echoes of the Garden of Eden - and both figures have turned to face the meditating canon.