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

St Columba Altarpiece

c. 1455
Oil on oak panel, 138 x 153 cm (central), 138 x 70 cm (each wing)
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Rogier was at the height of his artistic powers when, in around 1455, he painted this altarpiece for the church of St Columba in Cologne. The St. Columba Altarpiece unites three scenes which represent sequential rather than simultaneous events: the Annunciation (left wing), the Adoration of the Magi (central panel) and the Presentation in the Temple (right wing). The three scenes show the coming of Christ to earth and his subsequent recognition as ruler of the world by the three earthly kings, and as the promised Messiah by the devout Simeon and the prophetess Anna. The figure of the Virgin Mary is emphasized by the uniform blue of her clothes, a colour flanked by intense red and occurring nowhere else in the altarpiece. The exterior of the altarpiece had only a protective coating, with no painted scenes.

The central Adoration of the Magi, the only depiction of this kind in Rogier's extant work, was a particularly popular subject in Cologne, for since the 12th century the city had kept relics of the Magi, its most treasured possessions, in the cathedral. The Netherlandish artist not only created this work for a patron in Cologne, but also drew inspiration from an outstanding painting done in Cologne at this period, Stefan Lochner's Altarpiece of the Patron Saints of Cologne, sometimes known as the Cathedral Altarpiece. This large retable, painted in the 1440s for the chapel of Cologne town council, unites the patron saints of the city in a magnificent, monumental work from which any trace of historical narrative has been eliminated. Rogier, perhaps at the special wish of his patron, adopted the almost central position of the Virgin Mary in the depiction of the Adoration; this was an unusual situation for her in Netherlandish art. He also echoed other motifs, including the figure of a woman seen in profile, dressed in green and with a plait of hair, who appeared on the left wing of Lochner's altarpiece and again in Rogier's Presentation; details like the sword and fluttering hatband of the youngest king; and, behind the Magi, the figure of a bearded man holding a hat in front of his chest. Traces of the late Romanesque church of St. Gereon in Cologne seem to have entered into the architecture of the temple on the right wing - the polygonal rotunda, the gallery, and the small buttresses on the outside.

Other than the adoption of motifs, however, there is little to link the St. Columba Altarpiece to Lochner. As in the Middelburg Altarpiece, the panels are linked not by the background scene but by the lively sequence of figures all to the same scale, although the rotunda of the temple on the right does reach a little way into the central panel, where part of its exterior is visible. Compared with the earlier triptych, the figures are arranged in a shallower composition, not staggered back into the depths of the picture, an effect particularly clear in the second king. He looks two-dimensional, fitted in as he is between the other two, and although he is really further back the insistent red of his cloak brings him optically to the fore of the painting. The youngest king's white-clad page shows both how Rogier was composing his picture in two-dimensional terms, and how the narrow stage on which his protagonists are set is isolated from the background, which is crowded with motifs: the page is handing his master a magnificent vessel, but seems to be standing much too far back to perform the action. The page belongs to the background, which is not supposed to intrude into the foreground. Rogier clearly emphasizes the main figures inhabiting their own area at the front of the picture, an area inaccessible to the others.

Rogier developed many of these figures from older designs of his own. In the course of time Rogier must have designed a whole world of easily remembered figures and motifs, to be kept in the workshop's stock of models. He did not, however, use them mechanically, but always suited them to their new environments, so that without knowing the older pictures no one would take them for stock figures - something that is frequently not the case with his successors and imitators. However, the figures in the St. Columba Altarpiece also differ from their predecessors in their nature. Their solidity and striking physicality has gone, they are more delicate and the slenderness of the figures makes their movements appear even more graceful and elaborate than in earlier works.

The workshop's participation in its execution did not affect the quality of this very successful altarpiece adversely. Rogier's second son Pieter (ca. 1437-after 1514), also a painter, was probably working in the studio at this time, and so perhaps was the young Hans Memling. Even the underdrawing seems to have been done by an assistant working to the master's design, and several hands obviously took part in the painting; particularly striking is the face of the young woman on the right behind the scene of the Presentation, which deviates from Rogier's standard figures in type and in the more open, less enamel-like style of painting. The heads of the red-robed St. Joseph on the central and right wings are different in both expression and formal structure, though they are almost entirely identical in their details; the two painters responsible must have been using a very precise drawing.

The impressive compositions of the St. Columba Altarpiece, the grave and aristocratic figures, their slender delicacy, echoing the ideals of the time, and the many finely worked details made a great impression on Rogier's contemporaries. In the following period, his Adoration of the Magi was regarded almost as the only correct version of the theme, and not only the painters of Cologne but also other German and Netherlandish artists drew their inspiration from it almost entirely when tackling the subject.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.