In the 15th Century, humanity discovered the world, and itself. That is the image that is presented in Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and the Discovery of the World. In this exhibition, contemporary scientists, historians, philosophers and publicists go in search of indications for this frame of mind in the forty or so Early Netherlandish paintings from the collections of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp and the Rijksmuseum Twenthe.
The art of painting from the 15th Century in Flanders and environs has something elusive about it. Since 1902, when a large overview exhibition took place in Bruges, the painters from this time were named the Flemish Primitives, whereby ‘primitive' is to be understood as ‘early' or ‘first'. Despite how often the term ‘Early Netherlandish' is used neutrally in modern times, the question rises of whether here we are dealing with an intensification of the Gothic style of the late Middle Ages, or that the Early Netherlandish art of Northern Europe is an incarnation of the Renaissance that appears in Italy at the same time?
In the ‘Gothic' Early Netherlandish painting from the beginning of the 15th Century, a rather special revolution indeed occurs. The subjects are nearly always deeply religious, just as elsewhere in Europe. However, there is evidence of a previously unknown intensification of Realism. It is a Realism that has its roots in the Gothic or international style of the preceding century. Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck, Dieric Bouts and others try to depict the world as it appears to them.
The 15th Century is a turning point between Heaven and Earth, between the mystery and the de-mystification of the world. The religious world image in which all is permeated by divine symbolism begins to yield ground to a view directed at the earth. At the beginning of the 15th Century, Hendrik de Zeevaarder, the brother of the Portuguese king, initiated discovery expeditions that paved the way for the Portuguese empire. The world is still flat. But, at the end of the 15th Century, Columbus discovers America because he believes that he will also find India on a globe from a westerly direction. Even the religious conviction of the Modern Devotion under the guidance of Geert Grote places the emphasis on man by means of piety and an individual religious devotion.
This transition to the investigation of the visible world is also seen again in the paintings by Rogier van der Weyden, his contemporaries and his followers. Therein is found at centre stage not only exclusively the symbolic, religious meaning in depicted images, but also the naturalistic rendering of reality. By means of working with shadows and a free application of perspective, the painters brought forth an unknown illusionism to the table. Via the growing naturalism and the changing religious beliefs, Mary and Christ steadily have taken on more human appearances and are depicted more realistically, so that believers could better identify and empathise with them. However, technical developments also play an important role in the improvements of Realism. The ‘discovery' of oil paints provided for the fact that painters could build up their images in layers, by which colours became transparent and could be seen through each other. Via nuanced differences in light and dark, they were able to achieve a masterful expression of materials.
In the exhibition, contemporary scientists, historians, philosophers and publicists go in search of indications for this frame of mind in the forty or so Early-Netherlandish paintings from the collections of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp and the Rijksmuseum Twenthe. In short essays, they will delve into developments in the 15th Century that are of crucial importance for the development of their own respective fields.
Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Rijksmuseum Twenthe, RMT Vrienden, Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds (Nieske Fonds), Mondriaan Stichting, VSBfonds, SNS Reaalfonds and Aon Artscope.
Exhibition Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and the Discovery of the World
September 7 2014 - January 4 2015
(News item September 5 2014)