All that is needed to appreciate Flemish painting, Michelangelo once observed, are two eyes and an interest in facts. He was alluding to the intense realism, the extreme precision, and the illusionistic impression of light and atmosphere with which the artists of Flanders re-created the world around them on their relatively small painted panels. Michelangelo disparaged those studied efforts “to deceive the eye” ; they were alient to the spirit of Italian art and, thus, a deviation from the highest principles of painting.
Yet the work of the van Eyck’s , Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden, and their Flemish contemporaries and followers of the next several generations was celebrated in Italy, as elsewhere in Europe. Some critics and connoisseurs of the time considered it among the finest achievements of the age. It did, in fact, represent a pictorial revolution, a conquest of the visible world, that showed men a new way of seeing- as most great art does; and the consummate fidelity to the detailed natural appearance of things that Michelangelo disparaged seemed to many a vital element of the Flemish genius. More than half a millennium later, it remains a source of visual enchantment such as we may find in no other school of painting.
Viewing those early Flemish panels in detail is like walking through a Gothic looking glass and entering a miniature world where the realities of everyday life in the late Middle Ages seem magically conserved. It is a world peopled by substantial beings who exist in space, who are revealed in natural light, and who are clothed in, and surrounded by, the accoutrements of their ample lives. The attributes of tangible substances are presented with almost hallucinatory vividness- the texture of fine cloth, the soft luster of fur, the glitter of brocades, the sheen of polished woodwork, the gleaming reflection of copper and brass, the bright radiance of jewels, the precious metals, and the utter limpidity of crystal and glass. It is all there “to deceive the eye” , to evoke a sense of he immediate presence of people and things.
In the countryscape below, taken from Joachim Patinir’s “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” , once again a religious legend is given a “modern” Flemish setting. Born a century or so after Campin, Patinir became a master of the Antwerp painters’ guild in 1515. The section here excerpted from his picture illustrates a delightful episode in the story of the flight. As the Holy family paused by a field being sowed with grain, it is told, mary instructed the foremost peasant, “If men come asking for us , please say ‘none have passed since i sowed this grain’ ” . By morning the golden grain had miraculously grown tall, and the overjoyed peasants set at it with their sickles. When Herod’s soldiers arrived in pursuit of the infant Jesus, the peasant truthfully answered as mary had told him to, and the Romans turned back:
Some moral precept or satirical intent may underlie Quentin Massy’s “The Money Changer and His Wife” -below- but it remains a completely realistic genre picture of a woman distracted from her open Book of Hours by the delicate balance of golden coins in her husband’s scales. The height of illusion is reached in the convex mirror on the table, reminiscent of he wall mirror in van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Marriage” , which reflects the presence of a third person in the room and a view through a casement to the outside world. massys was a friend of Erasmus and of Patinir, with whom he sometimes collaborated.
In his “Virgin and Child” Petrus Christus represents the holy couple in a bourgeois Flemish bedroom, a setting in which he creates a sense of space and depth by subtle gradations of color and variations in the play of light on textured and polished surfaces as much as by geometric perspective. We are artfully drawn within the picture’s frae into a room that, in turn, invites us through its open windows and doorways into the distant reaches of the world outside.
This sense of continuous spatial depth isasized by the figure of Joseph entering the house from the garden in the far background.
Linda Seidel in her Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait: Stories of an Icon (Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 129) includes the following useful quotation to frame our consideration about how far our interpretation can go:
Few of us would disagree with the notion that viewers bring expectations of their own to an understanding of a work of art; few of us are likely to agree, however, about how little or how much autonomy a viewer enjoys in arriving at his or her own interpretation. For many, the range and nature of constraints on a given viewer’s response are controversial matters. On one side are scholars, in the tradition of Panofsky, who limit the “beholder’s share” by excluding from the interpretive process issues of daily life that inevitably attend it. Such individuals prefer to position art –its invention and appreciation– above ordinary day-to-day encounters and to identify its sources and its purposes with what may be seen as privileged rather than prosaic claims. Audiences do not really matter much at all from this perspective. Other scholars, however, would argue that all meaning is lodged in a viewer’s experience –though language-driven– is not exclusively text-based, and that politics and sex have as much claim as religious or literary tracts in any interpretive strategy. Many scholars stand, knowingly or not, somewhere in between.