Jan Maelwael is a painter from the Northern Netherlands, coming from Nijmegen, who around 1400 makes a career at the Burgundian court in Dijon. Maelwael grows up in the direct environs of the court of Gelre. He comes from a family of painters: his father Willem and his uncle were painters. Moreover, "Maelwael" means: "he who paints well". In the literature, the French form, Jean Malouel, often turns up. Via the French court in Paris he comes into contact with the Burgundian Duke, Philip the Bold, the brother of the French king, who immediately takes him into service as court painter and appoints him valet de chambre.
Little from Maelwael's oeuvre remains preserved and nothing can be attributed to him with absolute certainty. Archival documents (for the most part accounting ledgers) provide information about the life and work of this prominent artist. Since his youth, Jan Maelwael devoted himself to the study of heraldic painting, which he executed on pennants, banners and weaponry apparel. As court painter he receives large commissions for the decoration of the Carthusian cloister of Champmol near Dijon, which was provided as the final resting place for the Duke. The only devotional panels that remain preserved are merely a fraction of what he produced.
The Great Round Piëta (Paris, Musée du Louvre) with the escutcheon of the Duke on the backside indicates that it deals with a personal commission that was executed before 1404 (the year of Philip the Bold's death). Probably, he took on the devotional painting piece during his many diplomatic trips as support of his daily devotions. This masterpiece is the earliest example of a panel painting on a round frame, or tondo. The Piëta presentation shows the deceased Christ, who is supported by God the Father and mourned by Mary, Saint John and angels. The Messiah's corpse, out from which bloods streams, receives all of the attention. The manner by which the painter knows how to render in image the emotions of horror and sorrow of Saint John and the angels in such a delicate manner is compelling.
Recently, the Musée du Louvre is able to enrich its collection with another panel by Maelwael. It concerns a painting with a similar theme. The body of Christ is supported by John the Baptist and angels and is flanked by Mary. Stylistically it is closely related to the tondo.
The fine painting technique and the refinement of gestures and postures with attention to somber emotions are characteristics of Maelwael's work. In particular is the delicate brush technique in the modeling of the figures with a soft execution of the rendering of flesh.
The Madonna with Child, Angels and Butterflies (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie) is a later work from circa 1410. It is a rare example of a painting that is preserved on canvas from the period. The Madonna with the playing Child is surrounded by a cluster of angels, which form an animated group. Probably the painting is a companion piece to another painting, possibly a ducal portrait that is now gone lost.
From Burgundian accounting records, it appears that an impressive commission was promised to Jan Maelwael. For a group of five altars from the Carthusian cloister in Champmol, he would have provided painted altarpieces, which, however, have gone lost. Perhaps with one remaining: the painting with the Martyrdom of Saint Dionysius (Paris, Musée du Louvre), which is generally connected to this commission. According to a statement in a ducal ledger from after the death of the painter, Maelwael's successor, Henri Bellechose, receives a large quantity of pigments for the "completion" of a painting with the life of Saint Dionysius. Which precise portion of Maelwael is in the Paris work is not clear. To a large extent, it is also sometimes viewed as an original work of Bellechose.
Closely related to Maelwael's oeuvre is the Piëta from Troyes (Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie, Musée Sain-Loup) that is somewhat damaged, and which has a framing that was decorated with gold leaf and precious stones. The so-called Little Round Piëta (Paris, Musée du Louvre) is attributed to Maelwael because of the fine and graceful execution of the theme, or to another painter from his entourage who was influenced by him.
Around this time Jan Maewael was born. He is the son of Willem Maelwael, a painter in Nijmegen. During the early years, Jan probably works in the service of his father. Later, he unquestionably plays a role in the education of his three nephews, the celebrated miniaturists known as the Limburg Brothers: Paul, Herman and Jan, the sons of his sister Metta. The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (Chantilly, Musée Condé) and the Belles Heures de Jean de France (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), in which they provided miniatures for the Duke of Berry, belong to the high point of book illumination.
Jan Maelwael works at the French court, where he makes heraldic paintings on commission by Isabella van Beieren, wife of the French King Charles VI, who is also a grand niece of Catharina, Duchess of Gelre.
Jan Maewael succeeds Jean de Beaumetz as court painter and valet de chambre for Philip the Bold.
Jan Maelwael is paid for a painting with the presentation of a few assembled Apostles of Saint Anthony. The panel that has gone lost was intended for the private music chamber of the Duke.
A carpenter is paid this year for the construction of wooden panels for the altarpieces that Maelwael would paint for the church of the Carthusian cloister in Champmol. He is busy for several years with this project. Presumably he brought in religious themes and the lives of the Saints. He purchases quite a bit of materials: an assortment of pigments, gold leaf of various thicknesses and quality, tin foil and a large quantity of linen.
It is as good as certain that these paintings were richly gilded. For the dressing of the background and the frames, in this period, gold leaf was resolutely chosen that was worked with techniques that were currently used in the art of goldsmithing. Certainly after 1402, for the gilding of the paintings, Maewael employs the collaboration of a goldsmith whose name is known from the archives as Herman de Couloigne (from Cologne). The pieces provided needed cloth to eliminate the unevenness of the wooden frames, as well as to protect against the humidity of the walls.
Together with the well-known Haarlem sculptor, Claus Sluter and the goldsmith Hannequin de Haacht, Jan Maelwael takes part in the delegation of specialists who must critique the quality of and approve the two large panel pieces made by the sculptor Jacob de Baerze and the painter Melchior Broederlam. This deals with the Retable of the Saints and Martyrs and the Crucifixion Retable. Only the latter still has its painted panels. It is a unique example of the art of painting from before Van Eyck.
Maelwael is responsible for the painting of a weapons arsenal, which needed to be decorated for the occasion of the marriage feast of Antoon, the son of the Duke.
Maelwael is brought in for the colouring of a few images of the stone calvary group made by Claus Sluter, which crown the well in the Carthusian cloister of Champmol. He also works on the painting of a portal in the same cloister.
Presumably the painter travels back to his city of birth where he marries Heylwig van Rendinchaven. Since he is mentioned as a widower in documents for this data, it appears that this deals with a second marriage.
After the death of Philip the Bold in 1404, Maelwael remains working in Dijon. He is now court painter and valet de chambre of the Burgundian Duke, John the Fearless.
The painter is paid for the painting of a panel with the motto of the Duke: a sitting lion with a few weapons.
Jan Maewael receives the commission for a portrait painting of John the Fearless. A goldsmith provides the frame in gilded silver. The painting is a political gift intended for John II, King of Portugal. It is most likely gone missing.
He goes with his wife to Nijmegen in order to settle family business there.
Jan Maelwael is back in Dijon where he further carries out commissions for the court.
In this year, the last payments to the painter are registered. He receives a large sum of money for services rendered to the Duke.
Presumably Jan Maewael dies.
The painter Henri Bellechose receives from the widow of Jan a large quantity of pigments for the "completion" of a painting regarding the life of Saint Dionysius.