“…Meaning is neither found nor given, but that it takes shape arbitrarily, and that it is dependent upon associations and circumstances that scholars, artists, and viewers all bring to their engagement with paintings. It is not constructed by any one of them alone, although each of us is responsible for the orchestration of our own responses…” (Linda Seidel, Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait: Stories of an Icon, Cambridge University Press).
The truism that art allows for multiple forms of perfection is certainly demonstrated by both Van Eyck’s Arnolfini portraits and Rogier van der Weyden’s “The Descent from the Cross” or “Deposition” . It would be hard to find two pictures so different that were painted at so nearly the same moment and within a few miles of one another by artists who worked from the same technical and social experience. To some historians the contrast has made Rogier seem “anti-Eyckian” in his rejection of perfected innovations in favor of a return to the Gothicisms of the Master of Flémalle ( Robert Campin ). And it is true that Rogier rejected the rather placid, objective realism of the Van Eyck who painted the Adam and Eve.
But when van Weyden looked backward to the outmoded manner of Robert Campin, with his distinctly outlined components, Rogier was re-examining it because he discovered that it held undeveloped expressive potential. He wanted to combine the consistency of Van Eyck , that harmonious fusion of every element of a painting, with linear pattern as an abstraction of emotion.
Line as a structural and expressive device is the first key to Rogier’s style , just as the accurate simulation of visual phenomena is the elmentary key to Jan van Eyck’s – where line, as line, hardly exists. Jan may respond to the folds of a robe or to the ruffled edge of Jeanne Cenami’s headdress and make the most of a pattern that is offered ready for use, but he is not an inventor of line. He does not think in terms of line: line for him is a natural optical fact that occurs incidentally if inevitably as the visual boundary of an object in nature seen from a certain viewpoint.
In painting, this boundary takes the form of a separation between one area of color and the next, and while this may be a line in the most inclusive definition of the word, it is not a created or manipulated one. Any concept of line except as a natural visual boundary would be in opposition to Jan’s concept of volumes in space, since pure line exists on a plane and linear emphasis demands as a corollary some flattening of the third dimension.
Rogier’s recognition of this corollary is apparent if we compare the deep spatial stage of the Arnolfini portraits with the arbitrarily shallow one in “Descent” . In the latter the figures are in two planes along what would be only a narrow ledge, against an uncompromising flat golden wall instead of against the landscape that, of course, would have been demanded by any realistic version of the scene. By any realistic analysis the participants are so tightly interlocked within this flattened box that they could not move, could hardly assume another position of arm and foot. And yet the impression is one of movement.
It is in Jan’s art that is static; Rogier’s figures are united by the steady , slowly eddying and winding flow of line across the picture, paralleled by the emotional current traveling from figure to figure that fuses reverence, in the presence of the mystical drama, with the nearly intolerable anguish of human tragedy.