UNKNOWN MASTER, Flemish
(active c 1400)
St Christopherc. 1400
Tempera and oil on wood, 33 x 21 cm
Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp
This picture originated from the Carthusian monastery at Champmol and is the external panel of a domestic altar, which consisted of four parts. But, inferring from its style, it was not produced in Burgundy but may have been made in Flanders, in the southern part of the Low Countries. It lacks the sophisticated elegance of Burgundian court art; its naive and verbose narrative and its naturalism were characteristic of illuminators' workshops in the towns of the Southern Netherlands. The fact that from 1369 onwards Flanders was a province of the Duchy of Burgundy explains how the altarpiece found its way to Champmol.
The unusual interpretation of the theme makes it probable that the altarpiece was created in a workshop far from cosmopolitan court centres, where local folk traditions were more tenaciously adhered to.
St Christopher, leaning on his staff and wrapped in a red mantle with a blue lining, is wading across the river. The Child Jesus, who usually sits on the giant's shoulder, is now waiting on the far bank of the river to be carried across the water. With their identical colours but different proportions, the two figures create a sharp contrast to their greenish-brown surroundings. Another strong area of colour is provided by the red background of the picture, against which the trees show up, as well as a small building with a hermit sitting in front of it. Usually he lights the way for Jesus, but here, comfortably crossing his legs, he greedily drinks from a big jug.
The banks rise steeply from the water and, like the river, they appear to tip into the plane of the picture. The water is crowded with fish, whose mere outlines are indicated by the painter. By this device he may have intended to convey the transparency of the substance. On the other hand, St Christopher's foot is discoloured in the water. The figure of a mermaid combing her hair, which is a familiar symbol of an evil spirit leading man into temptation, is also discernible in the river.