Rijksmuseum Twenthe - Het kunstmuseum van Enschede

Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and the discovery of the world

7 September 2014 – 4 January 2015. After the first two exhibitions, Permeke and the Flemish expressionists and Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens. Flemish baroque, Rijksmuseum Twenthe is presenting with Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and the discovery of the world the final exhibition of the prestigious, three-part collaboration with the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA). Twenty 15th and early 16th century works from the collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, which include works by van Eyck, van der Weyden as well as works by Memling, Metsijs, Gerard David and many others, are augmented by highlights from the museum’s own collection of medieval art.

Religious fundamentalists

Believers in the Middle Ages were religious fundamentalists: what was written in the Bible was the incontrovertible truth. No-one in the 15th century doubted that God had created the world and given Paradise on Earth to Mankind. Eve took the forbidden fruit, which Adam then bit, and playtime seemed over forever. But in his infinite goodness God sent his Son on Earth. Whoever followed Christ’s example would on the Day of Judgement be rewarded with a place in heaven: Paradise regained.

Awareness of the End
For the 15th and early 16th century Christian, this is the very core and centre of his life, and was just as certain and undisputed as the theory of evolution is today (if we except some Creationists). The medieval Christian surfed on the waves of sacred history and expected to live his life in constant awareness of the End.

Helpline for prayer

Painting played a crucial role in all of this. Not only do paintings constantly remind the believer of the great religious stories: they also help in prayer. Furthermore, they enable the believer to imagine himself in the company of the saints, the Holy Virgin Mary, and of Christ himself. The believer and his heavenly helplines are praying for his salvation.

A concerned Mother and a loving God

The God that is depicted is no longer a stern Lord, nor is the Virgin Mary a remote Madonna. She is transformed into a loving and compassionate Mother, and later into an intensely grieving woman. Christ himself becomes a man of flesh and blood, who bleeds, sweats and suffers hellish agony and pain. The confrontation with the humanity of Jesus and his Mother enable the believer to more easily imagine the mystery of belief. But at the same time the chasm dividing heaven and earth is shrinking. That feeling is also strengthened by the thought that everything on earth – from the highest tree to the smallest buttercup – has been created by God. But God also manifests himself in the gleam of the pearl and the divine light that is reflected in the precious stone. Exactly for this reason, it was deemed essential from the 15th century on to represent reality down to the smallest detail in painting.

Obsession for details

Although the paintings of Jan van Eyck are from the early beginnings of this ‘ars nova’ – the ‘new art’ – they do form its unmistakable highlight. Van Eyck’s ‘Madonna at the Fountain’ is indeed steeped in symbolism, but it also moving, recognisable, and almost obsessive in its details: van Eyck paints with a merciless analytical eye. It is precisely this fascination for reality that in the course of the following century will slowly, very slowly bring about the disintegration of this deeply religious world. A genuine religious feeling underlies the exploration of the world but in that world God is eventually nowhere to be found. A blade of grass is just a blade of grass and not a cosmic sign of an invisible God. In that sense, van Eyck and his contemporaries unknowingly set the first step towards the secularisation of the world. History has its own sense of irony and can pull the rug out from under our feet.

Companion publication for the exhibition

A companion book will be published for the exhibition in which eight art historians, philosophers and literators will shine a light on developments in the art of the 15th and early 16th century. Their articles are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that together contribute to a better understanding of this unique turning-point in (art) history, in which reality for the first time since Antiquity is once again the steadfast benchmark in the visual arts. It is exactly here, in those distant, almost exotic and fairytale-like Middle Ages, that lie the roots of society as we still know it today.