WEYDEN, Rogier van der
(b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles)
Bladelin Triptych (left wing)1445-50
Oil on oak panel, 91 x 40 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
The scenes in the side panels depict the advent of the Son of God on earth being announced in miraculous visions to the Roman emperor Octavian (Augustus) and to the three Magi. The Christ Child receives the homage of both East and West, that is to say the whole world as displayed in the panorama of the open triptych: the West is symbolized by the Roman empire - which was regarded as the direct predecessor of the medieval Holy Roman Empire - the East by the Magi, and between them stands the Holy Land with Bethlehem, to the medieval mind the centre and navel of the world.
The visions seen by these ruler are taken from a text popular at the time, but never previously illustrated in this form: the chapter on the Nativity in the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend, a collection of tales of the saints written around 1270 by the Dominican monk Jacobus de Voragine (1228/29-1298). However, there were certain problems involved in illustrating it in realistic detail. It was particularly difficult to present Octavian's vision of the Madonna on an altar hovering in the sky, not borne up by angels or similar figures. Rogier solved this problem by seating the Virgin on an obviously heavy altar, so closely framed by the opening that she looks almost like a picture within the picture, providing an optical focus. The donor clearly wanted the text of the legend illustrated literally, and he must at first have asked for actual quotations too, although they were eventually omitted, to the benefit of the work as a whole: infrared photography shows that all the scenes originally contained scrolls to hold wording. The left-hand picture, for instance, was to quote the words miraculously heard by Octavian, according to the legend, on seeing the vision: Haec est ara coeli ("This is the altar of Heaven"). However, during the execution of the triptych it obviously became clear that the pictures would make their point even without any explanatory text, and the wording was overpainted. Such a decision cannot have been taken without the consent of the patron who commissioned the altarpiece, and perhaps it may have been made during a conversation between Rogier and his client when the latter visited the artist's studio.