EYCK, Barthélemy d'
(active 1444-1469 in France)
Mixed technique on wood, 155 x 176 cm
Ste Marie-Madeleine, Aix-en-Provence
Our knowledge of the life and work of this artist is based on a series of assumptions. It is thought that he trained in the workshop of Jan van Eyck, and from the 1440s onwards executed miniatures and panel paintings for René of Anjou and others of his circle. It is uncertain whether he accompanied René to Italy in 1440, during the latter's brief rule over Naples, or whether he was employed by the Dukes of Burgundy during that period. Following René's return in the mid-1440s, Barthélemy added about five miniatures to one of his older codices (London, British Library), and also illuminated a book of hours for him, in collaboration with Enguerrand Quarton (New York, The Morgan Library and Museum).
Between 1443 and 1445 he is believed to have executed a winged altarpiece for Aix-en-Provence. After another extensive series of miniatures, he produced his masterpieces, namely seven miniatures in a French edition of Boccaccio's Théséide (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek) and the 16 illustrations to the Livre du Cuer d'Amour espris - these latter representing one of the supreme artistic achievements of their day.
The Annunciation, which since the Revolution has been kept in the church of St Mary Magdalene in the Provencal capital, was the main panel of an altarpiece which the clothmaker Pierre Corpici commissioned for the altar which he had endowed in the city's Saint-Sauveur cathedral. While the first impression is of a plain and monumental setting, the painter in fact pays loving attention to the details of the stained glass, the leaves flickering like flames on the capitals, and the heads and bats in the tracery.
Although Barthélemy d'Eyck can be assumed to be related to Jan and Hubert van Eyck, the present work falls fully in line with artistic practice in the Mediterranean sphere - from its thicker, less translucent application of paint to the gold brocade of the Virgin's cloak. At the same time, its astonishing realism at times goes far beyond even Netherlandish painting. There is a pronounced three-dimensionality to the composition as a whole; forms are weighty and substantial, while skin surfaces are sharply differentiated. Mary's hair is not perfectly coiffured, but instead full, almost flaxen. The wonderfully observed, plump cushions and the bunch of flowers also have a quite different spatial presence to their northern counterparts. This impression is reinforced on the one hand by the relatively plain metal jug and the quietly unforced arrangement of the flowering Marian symbols plucked, so it seems, at random from the garden, and on the other by the surrounding empty space and the sharp, spotlight type of lighting.
The architecture also appears solid and three-dimensional, and is wonderfully observed against the light - as in the tracery on the left above the angel's wing, and the roundel through which the Christ Child floats down, already shouldering his Cross. The figures listening to Mass and strolling around at the back of the church lend the composition an astonishing depth, even though the artist - doubtless deliberately - has not attempted to depict the room and the figures to scale.