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

Exhumation of St Hubert

1437-40
Oil on oak panel, 88 x 81 cm
National Gallery, London

In 1436 Rogier van der Weyden was appointed to the office of town painter of Brussels, the most important city in the duchy of Brabant and one of the main residences of the Duke of Burgundy. Rogier's position is probably connected with his acceptance of the most important commission the city could give an artist, the huge Scenes of Justice for the town hall. (Unfortunately these were destroyed during the bombardment of Brussels by the French troops of Louis XIV in 1695.)

This huge commission from the city must have demanded an enormous amount of working capacity on Rogier's part, and at the same time would have raised his reputation greatly. In Brussels, which appears to have had no artistic tradition of any significance before his arrival, he must soon have become a fashionable painter in great demand. For this large civic commission of course he needed assistants, who would also help to supply other demands. The regulations of the Brussels painters' guild allowed a master to have only one apprentice at a time, but placed no restriction on the number of journeymen he could employ. Rogier presumably employed more and more assistants to work on the pictures, though only a single original source refers to them: when an altarpiece was installed in Cambrai in 1459, several "ouvriers" (workmen, or more likely assistants) are mentioned.

Among extant paintings, there are already works from around 1440 which closely resemble Rogier's artistically, but are different from paintings by his own hand, and so are probably by the employees of his workshop. At this point he would not have had time to train more than one apprentice to the point of being qualified to set up independently, so there can hardly have been any "successors" of Rogier yet. However, he could already have passed on his technique and style to a number of journeymen, who would then have been able both to assist him in working on the city's huge commission, and also to produce independent paintings of their own which could leave the workshop under the name of "Rogier."

Two panels with scenes from the life of St. Hubert show that he did in fact employ several relatively independent assistants. These scenes are very much in Rogier's style, but diverge from his major works in both execution and layout. Both panels were originally in the chapel of St Hubert in St Gudule, the main church of Brussels. The chapel was donated in 1437 by two prosperous citizens, Jan Cools and Jan Vrientschap, who probably commissioned the paintings at the same time; the two paintings seem originally to have been part of a larger series, and may well have been ready for the dedication of the chapel in 1439. These two extant panels are clearly the work of different artists, and indeed it seems likely, judging by the various different ways of painting faces, that several painters may have worked on the Exhumation of St Hubert. The two pictures are considerably different from each other in design, a feature particularly obvious in the differences of spatial depiction; the Exhumation of St Hubert, which is executed to a very high standard, is more convincing in this respect, and does not show the exaggerated effect of depth that makes the room in the Dream of Pope Sergius look like a tunnel.

The scene showing the exhumation of St Hubert in 825 from his tomb in St Peter's Church, Liège, has been transferred to the choir of a modern Gothic church of Rogier's time. Bishop Walcaud of Liège, planning to move the corpse to the Benedictine abbey of Andage, is swinging a censer in the foreground left; Emperor Louis the Pious (778-840) and Archbishop Adelward of Cologne are kneeling one each side of the altar. The onlookers, who wear contemporary clothing, probably include the two donors of the pictures, with their families.

The men who worked in Rogier's workshop were obviously more than mere humble assistants in the execution of paintings; when the number of commissions on hand made it necessary, they even designed pictures with relative independence. In doing so they naturally used their master's formulae and his figure types. Rogier's assistants also resorted to models already in the workshop for such features as the pattern of textiles; the patterned green fabric of the altar cloth in the Exhumation of St Hubert had already featured in the under-dress of the young woman to the left in the Deposition (Prado, Madrid), and the pattern appears again a good deal later in the scene of the Annunciation on the St. Columba Altarpiece (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), on a carpet.




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