WEYDEN, Rogier van der
(b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles)

Braque Family Triptych

c. 1450
Oil on oak panel, 41 x 68 cm (central panel), 41 x 34 cm (wings each)
Musée du Louvre, Paris

The armorial bearings on the back indicate that this portable triptych was the property of Jehan Braque and his wife Catherine de Brabant, of Tournai, who were married in about 1450-51. Jehan Braque died soon afterwards, in 1452; his young widow, who did not marry again till 1461, must have commissioned this triptych in his memory.

The Braque Triptych ranks among Rogier van der Weyden's most celebrated works. It is a small-scale work of the kind that were set upon portable altars in the oratories of wealthy individuals. When closed, it shows the classical vanity theme, a skull and a cross. Open, it displays images of Christ in the centre, and to either side - the Virgin, St John the Evangelist, St John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene. They are represented against a landscape that is rendered down to the finest detail, with its rivers and mountains, grass and leaves so precisely drawn they could almost be counted and tiny figures visible in the distance in the streets of imaginary towns - a favourite motif of the Flemish masters.

Pictures showing busts of Christ and the Virgin had existed earlier north of the Alps, but a sequence of several saints shown half length seems to derive from a type of altarpiece found in Italy from the 13th century onward. The innovation is to place them in front of a wide, coherent landscape relating to the figures themselves not realistically, but in context. It stands for the entire world ruled by Christ and to which He descended incarnate as man, as described at the beginning of the Gospel of St John: "And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." If the dark exterior was a reminder of the inevitability of death, the wide, radiant interior with its saintly figures allowed the devout viewer to hope for salvation.

Artistically, the triptych is very close to the Beaune Altarpiece. The head of the Virgin Mary, and in particular the head of Christ, are so like their counterparts in the picture of the Last Judgment that they must have been executed from the same cartoon (full-size design for a painting). It is not certain whether the work is entirely by Rogier's hand; the underdrawing reveals thin lines not at all typical of him, and perhaps done with a pen instead of Rogier's usual brush. There are also some differences in the artistic execution: the Virgin's face, for instance, looks waxen, and inflexible around the eyes by comparison with the wonderful, tenderly painted, and lifelike Mary Magdalene, which is among Rogier's finest works.