WEYDEN, Rogier van der
(b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles)
St Luke Drawing a Portrait of the Madonna1435
Oil and tempera on panel, 138 x 111 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
This work shares the solidity and monumentality of its figures with the Deposition (Prado, Madrid), but differs from it in a striking atmospheric effect of chiaroscuro, a quality typical of the art of Jan van Eyck. In fact Rogier is referring directly in his St Luke Madonna to a painting by Jan van Eyck, the Madonna commissioned around 1435 by the Burgundian chancellor Nicolas Rolin and consequently known as the Rolin Madonna (Louvre, Paris). As well as the ideas about the atmospheric use of light and shade that Rogier derived from this picture, he also adopted its overall construction and many motifs from Jan van Eyck's painting, including the colours of the garments worn by the main figures. They are arranged in the picture as in the van Eyck model, except that the Virgin and her companion have changed sides.
These similarities of colour and light show that Rogier must have seen the original version of the Rolin Madonna, and he can have done so only in Jan van Eyck's studio in Bruges before Chancellor Rolin collected the picture, which was for his private enjoyment only and so was not accessible to the public thereafter. The meeting in Bruges between the two men who were by now the greatest and most famous painters north of the Alps - perhaps they were already acquainted - cannot have taken place very long after 1435, and may well have been accompanied by a lively exchange of ideas. At any rate, Rogier as town painter of Brussels not only profited by his knowledge of the Rolin Madonna, he also obviously came away from Jan van Eyck with new ideas and sketches of other motifs, soon to be used in his own workshop.
In spite of the inspiration Rogier had gained from Jan van Eyck, his St Luke Madonna is an entirely independent depiction of the subject, and was to establish a new tradition. In a departure from earlier paintings of the subject, Rogier's saint is not himself painting the Mother of God but recording the silverpoint drawing. This corresponds to the practice of contemporary portraiture, and also emphasizes the spiritual significance of the picture more than the long, craftsmanlike activity involved in painting itself.
By comparison with other works by Rogier, the extremely picturesque qualities of the chiaroscuro in the St Luke Madonna are particularly marked. Perhaps the artist, impressed by this effect in the pictures of Jan van Eyck, used it here because the painting not only honoured the saint but also stood for the painter's craft. In addition, Rogier was demonstrating another modern artistic achievement, and thus - whether in homage or in a spirit of rivalry - was referring explicitly to the other famous Flemish painter of his time. On the whole, however, he interpreted his model very much in his own way: where Jan's figures are embedded in a world of light and shade, Rogier's figures clearly claim more attention than the rest of the picture. The landscape in the Rolin Madonna seems to stretch backward for ever, suggesting in its countless details the whole teeming fullness of the world. In Rogier's picture it goes no further than its immediately visible part, and is cut off by architectural features at the sides; similarly the inner room, open to the elements in Jan's painting, has acquired a ceiling in Rogier's painting. The small town in the background is animated by little figures (including a man urinating outside the town walls) but it is possible to count them all - what is a whole universe in Jan's painting here becomes a comparatively flat background for the figures, one that can be completely surveyed.
In those figures themselves, however, Rogier shows himself far superior to Jan van Eyck as an innovator. His Virgin is the quintessence of tender maternal love, simultaneously humble and proud; she is presented to the observer in such a way that (unlike Jan's Madonna) she is effective even without the context of the picture, and may be seen as typical of representations of the Virgin by herself. Instead of the masses of folds in Jan's painting, her garment in Rogier's version of the scene forms attractive calligraphic patterns. St Luke is not kneeling motionless before her, absorbed in his work, but is approaching gently like the angel of the Annunciation. Although he is seen in the act of kneeling, it does not jar on the viewer that he could hardly execute a portrait sketch in that attitude, since his activity is not emphasized for its own sake. Instead, his mobile, sensitive hands express both veneration of the Virgin and the intellectual aspect of portraiture. The saint is deliberately captured in a state between movement and repose, which could be the reason why, by comparison with those in the Rolin Madonna, the figures have changed sides: the direction of the saint's movement runs counter to the usual way of "reading" a picture (from left to right) and is thus inhibited - if St Luke were seen approaching from the left his movement would appear too emphatic.