WORLDVIEW: Portraits

Brothers van Eyck, The Adoration of the Lamb (detail)

The painting of oneself standing or autonomous portraits with individual features is a new development in the late-Medieval art. Prior to this, sculptured portraits existed primarily in the context of burial tombs for princes. And, up until circa 1400, painted portraits were the exclusive privilege of kings and the high aristocracy.

In the 15th Century, wealthy citizens from the Flemish cities begin to imitate the behaviour of the nobility. They order portraits for themselves in turn. Although we know surprisingly little of specific functions, usage and placing of the earlier portraits of the Flemish Primitives, it is, however, clear that the portraits could have very different forms and functions. As such, the donor portraits appear on altarpieces. These could either be presented on the exterior or on the interior of the altarpiece. There are epitaph portraits, as memorials for the deceased, made such as Jan van Eyck's Portrait of a Man (Léal souvenir) (1432, National Gallery, London) and occupational portraits such as Jan van Eyck's Portrait of the Goldsmith Jan de Leeuw (1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). In the late-Middle Ages, there were also already personal portraits for use in the domestic circle. An example of this is the Portrait of Margareta, the wife of Jan van Eyck (1439, Groeninge Museum, Bruges).

Till-Holger Borchert