The work of Jan van Eyck, with its balanced, reserved, and dignified realism. is usually considered the summary expression of Flemish genius. His complete Flemishness, along with his unapproachable technical perfection, may explain why his art was less easily assimilated than that of Rogier van der Weyden’s. Rogier changed the course of northern painting, and affected the course of painting in Spain and Italy as well, with a picture completed shortly before the Arnolfini portraits.
We must remember that the Flemish masterpieces, such as Rogier’s “Descent From the Cross” were all painted within the same decade, a comment on the exploratory variety of Flemish art. The Master of Flémalle’s “Annunciation” seems to have been painted between 1425 and 1428. At the other end of the decade, Jan van Eyck’s signature as witness painter of the Arnolfini marriage is accompanied by the date 1434. Two years earlier he had completed the Ghent Altarpiece with its Adam and Eve, and at about the same time, 1432-33, Rogier was painting “The Descent From the Cross.”
A glance at “The Descent From the Cross” is enough to explain its impact on artists of any country and, for that manner, of any time. Within a few years it was known all over Europe through copies. For generations it affected painting, graphic arts, and sculpture at all levels, sometimes because the artists knew the original, and sometimes because its motifs had become so widely adopted that even folk artists who might never have heard of Rogier were producing naive variations of the figures that he had invested with such passion and elegance.
Passion and elegance, on the face of it, make uneasy companions. The greater the elegance, the more likely it is to act as an inhibiting shell, giving pleasure but rejecting the full expression of passion as an excessive indulgence and hence a demonstration of lamentable taste. Or, the more intense the passion, the more likely it is to break up a polished surface and disrupt a graceful pattern, since the niceties of taste become inconsequential before the force of emotion. In art, elegance usually wins out, since an elegant manner is something that can be learned while the capacity for passionate expression is God-given, and not given to everyone.
No conflict, no contradiction, no paradox, and no compromise is involved when we speak of the passion and elegance of “The Descent From the Cross.” Indeed, we cannot say that it is passionate and elegant in equal parts. It is wholly both; the two wholes are co-existent and interdependent. One must be physically blind not to respond to the painting’s visual opulence, spiritually dead to remain unaffected by its emotional intensity, and in some way schizoid to divide the total experience into its component parts.
Andrew Graham-Dixon: Rogier van der Weyden lived at a time when affective piety was on the rise in Northern Europe – a brand of piety which encouraged extreme identification with the suffering Christ, and emulation of his example. The Imitation of Christ, a book of devotional exercises written by Thomas a Kempis in the early fifteenth century, was one of the key texts of the so-called “New Devotion”; and Rogier van der Weyden’s painting strikes me as being conceived in a very similar spirit. Thomas a Kempis encouraged his readers to try to see Christ’s suffering in their mind’s eye, the better to sympathise with it and thereby the closer to come to God. The painter shows that suffering with the unparalleled realism of his art, embodies it unforgettably; and in the figures of those who grieve at Christ’s death he offers his audience a group of role models, so to speak, for their own responses. The faces of John (to the left) and Joseph of Arimathea (under the cross in the centre) are filled with solemn contemplation, as is that of the splendidly dressed man holding Christ’s feet. The Magdalen, to the extreme right, is in a paroxysm of grief, staring at those same bloodied feet and clenching her hands together in a way that suggests her crying is also a form of prayer. They are part of the scene and yet also detached from it, in the sense that they seem to feel this moment, of their separation from Christ, as the beginning of a new stage in their lives – almost as a kind of alienation. They are like sleepwalkers caught in an oppressively claustrophobic dream. Perhaps this was Rogier van der Weyden’s way of indicating his belief that the consequences of Christ’s death can never be escaped from, or forgotten. The eternity of grief, atonement and contemplation that he depicts is, for him, the essence of mortal existence.
This is a noteworthy aspect of the van Eyck open understanding of the limits of pictorial representation. Remember van Eyck’s mirror reflection embedded in The Arnolfini Betrothal, expanding picture space so as to secure the painter’s critical attendance in front of the scene as being his critically included presence (I was there) in the scene of the picture….Origo masters of the South conceived of pictures more or less invariably as windows (invisible screens on which to mark optical penetration) while painters of the North, Affinitas painters, such as Campin and van Eyck, recurrently suggested that pictures were doorways (an open door is an invitation) in which beholder and painter stopped for a while, wondering about the scene (the van Eyck brothers in the doorway witnessing the Arnolfini Betrothal).
—There is emotion in Caravaggio’s models in contrast to what is the case with Rembrandt’s models.
—What do you mean?
—Rembrandt was not different from Vermeer in this respect, and it all goes back to van Eyck. Look at the Arnolfini Betrothal . A casual look at the picture almost conveys the impression of a quickly arranged across-the-state-line marriage stripped down to meet minimal legal demands. No real emotion.
—You are wrong! To me that picture is all emotion!
—Right on the point! But how is all that emotion conveyed? Neither by expressive reaction nor through any elaborate ceremony but through an emotional space.
—And what would that mean?
—It means that the parties are immersed in oceanic blissful light rather than that they react emotionally.