ART 4 2-DAY 18 JUNE
VAN DER WEYDEN ANNEX
| Died on 18 June 1464:
Rogier de la Pasture van der Weyden, Flemish Northern
Renaissance painter born in 1399 or 1400.
Extensive coverage with commentaries and links to reproductions, in whole and in many details, of:
Saint Luke Madonna
Seven Sacraments Altarpiece
Bladelin Triptych (here)
Last Judgment Polyptych
Braque Family Triptych
Saint Columba Altarpiece
Saint John Altarpiece
^ == Bladelin Triptych (Middelburg Altarpiece) (1450) _ In the middle of the 17th century this triptych, known as the Middelburg Altarpiece, was in the Flemish city of Middelburg, founded by the rich Bruges burgher Pieter Bladelin and his wife around 1444. The donor of the work, also known as the Bladelin Altarpiece, is therefore usually thought to have been the founder of the city himself. On the other hand, Middelburg passed into other hands after the death of the Bladelins, who had no children, and there is no evidence that the altarpiece did not arrive there at a later date. Furthermore, it shows only one donor, although Bladelin's wife was cofounder with him of the new city. The donor depicted, wearing the same fashions as the Duke of Burgundy and obviously a member of the upper classes, must therefore be considered unidentified.
Bladelin Triptych open (1450, 91x89cm center panel, 91x40 cm each wing) _ In the middle of the 17th century this triptych, known as the Middelburg Altarpiece, was in the Flemish city of Middelburg, founded by the rich Bruges burgher Pieter Bladelin and his wife around 1444. The donor of the work, also known as the Bladelin Altarpiece, is therefore usually thought to have been the founder of the city himself. On the other hand, Middelburg passed into other hands after the death of the Bladelins, who had no children, and there is no evidence that the altarpiece did not arrive there at a later date. Furthermore, it shows only one donor, although Bladelin's wife was cofounder with him of the new city. The donor depicted, wearing the same fashions as the Duke of Burgundy and obviously a member of the upper classes, must therefore be considered unidentified.
In the center panel the donor is shown kneeling in an attitude of prayer beside the Virgin and Joseph, adoring the naked Child. In the background is a town, perhaps representing Middelburg, near Bruges. The stable of Bethlehem resembles the ruin of a Romanesque chapel. The painter may have had in mind the remains of the palace of King David, who was reckoned among the forbears of Jesus. In the foreground the building is supported by a single pillar which bulks so large beside the tiny figure of the Child that it must obviously be regarded as symbolic. It can be interpreted both as a symbol of sublime power and of the place where Christ was later scourged.
The message of the center panel alone would be incomplete without the scenes portrayed on the two wings. The three panels together are an allegory of the world dominion of Christ and show not only the ruler of Middelburg and Brabant but also kings in both west and east paying homage to the Child. Tradition has it that, on the day of Christ's birth, a prophetess, the Sibyl of Tibur, showed the Emperor Augustus a vision of the Child and his Mother in the heavens. Here the ruler of the West (the Duke of Burgundy) falls humbly on his knees, removes his crown and swings a censer as a token of sacrifice. In the right-hand wing the three kings of the Orient are depicted; deeply moved and fearful, also kneeling before the vision in the heavens; this is the star of Bethlehem, which appears in the clouds with the embodiment of the Child, to guide them on their journey.
Not only in terms of the subject matter but also in the formal composition of the work, the painter has related the side-wings to the central scene. In so doing, he abandoned the uncoordinated scheme of the multipartite altarpiece familiar throughout the Middle Ages. One need only compare earlier works by Rogier van der Weyden such as the tripartite Altarpiece of Saint John the Baptist - to realize the extent of his advance. The bold use of space which the painter makes in each individual scene of the Saint John triptych becomes even more marked in the Bladelin Altarpiece, where the compass of the picture extends over all three panels, and this is also reflected in the abandonment of any dividing architectonic framework.
Rogier was one of the first great painters of the north to visit Italy. Around 1449/50 he must have been in Ferrara, Florence and Rome; and it would have been soon after his return from the south that he received Peter Bladelin's commission. There are few indications of Italian influence in the Middelburg Altarpiece. It is perhaps to be traced in the left wing, where the attendants, standing stern-faced and silent at the picture's edge, recall Quattrocento portraits in Florence.
Peter Bladelin (d. 1472), Treasurer to the Duke of Burgundy and founder of Middelburg, donated the altar triptych to the town church. It has been replaced by an early copy; the Berlin Gallery bought the original panels in 1834 from Nieuwenhuis in Brussels, who had previously purchased them in Middelburg.
exterior The exteriors of the wings of the Bladelin Triptych were probably not painted at first; an unknown painter added the Annunciation later, using as a model an engraving by Master FVB, probably active in Bruges 1480-1500, who had been strongly influenced by Rogier van der Weyden.
Left wing _ The scenes in the side panels depict the advent of the Son of God on earth being announced in miraculous visions to the Roman emperor Octavian (Augustus) and to the three Magi. The Christ Child receives the homage of both East and West, that is to say the whole world as displayed in the panorama of the open triptych: the West is symbolized by the Roman empire - which was regarded as the direct predecessor of the medieval Holy Roman Empire - the East by the Magi, and between them stands the Holy Land with Bethlehem, to the medieval mind the center and navel of the world.
The visions seen by these ruler are taken from a text popular at the time, but never previously illustrated in this form: the chapter on the Nativity in the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend, a collection of tales of the saints written around 1270 by the Dominican monk Jacobus de Voragine (1228/29-1298). However, there were certain problems involved in illustrating it in realistic detail. It was particularly difficult to present Octavian's vision of the Madonna on an altar hovering in the sky, not borne up by angels or similar figures. Rogier solved this problem by seating the Virgin on an obviously heavy altar, so closely framed by the opening that she looks almost like a picture within the picture, providing an optical focus. The donor clearly wanted the text of the legend illustrated literally, and he must at first have asked for actual quotations too, although they were eventually omitted, to the benefit of the work as a whole: infrared photography shows that all the scenes originally contained scrolls to hold wording. The left-hand picture, for instance, was to quote the words miraculously heard by Octavian, according to the legend, on seeing the vision: Haec est ara coeli ("This is the altar of Heaven"). However, during the execution of the triptych it obviously became clear that the pictures would make their point even without any explanatory text, and the wording was painted over Such a decision cannot have been taken without the consent of the patron who commissioned the altarpiece, and perhaps it may have been made during a conversation between Rogier and his client when the latter visited the artist's studio.
panel _ The center of the triptych shows the Nativity of Christ. The
donor wore clothes of a similar fashion to those occurring in Rogier's miniature
in the Hainault Chronicle. Apart from the fact that the donor's coat is
not made of costly brocade, it greatly resembles the one worn by the duke
in the miniature. Unlike Philip, who as the highest-ranking person present
keeps on his hat, the "chaperon," the donor in the triptych, kneeling before
the Christ Child, has removed his, and wears it slung behind him on his
The donor of the Middleburg Altarpiece is more closely integrated with the scene than in almost any other Early Netherlandish painting. In his position and attitude he takes the place, within the Nativity narrative, of a shepherd praying, a motif frequent in pictorial tradition. Even in Rogier's Crucifixion Triptych (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), the married couple who commissioned the work are much more obviously outside the events shown, because their attitude of prayer cannot be seen as part of the narrative. But the donor of the Middelburg Altarpiece too is present only in spirit, witnessing the incarnation of God in his meditations. In order to put sufficient distance between him and the Virgin, the artist has resorted to a device already found in the Deposition (Prado, Madrid): the contours of his figure come very close to other items in the pictorial area, but overlap them to a minimal extent. The donor's head comes short of the ruined wall confining the area containing the Virgin, his hands are close to the outline of her dress but do not quite touch it, and the outline of his coat runs past Mary's robe with only a very slight overlap. The man is kept within a vertical area of the painting (an effect reinforced by the black he wears), an area also containing the fine town with its worldly bustle that is his real environment, although here, of course, it represents Bethlehem. The gap in the little wall behind the donor on the right denotes the road he has taken away from everyday life in his piety, an idea also suggested by the end of his headdress lying on the ground.
A carefully calculated equilibrium is perceptible in the composition. There are three large figures on each panel - even the left-hand panel, where the emperor's two advisers at the back are in fact almost hidden by the one in front. The group around the Christ Child describes an upward-pointing triangle, balanced by a downward-pointing triangle created by the outline of the diagonally placed ruin and the two holes in the foreground, which are set on a slant. This surface pattern in the shape of a horizontal rhomboid, however, also creates depth, since the corner of the ruin projecting forward and the figures graduated in a sequence moving backward interlock spatially. But as usual, Rogier restricts the back part of the stage on which his main figures are set: the back wall of the ruin, the wall of Octavian's apartment, and the hill behind the Magi all act as visual barriers at about the same depth.
The main purpose of the triangular composition, however, is to emphasize the Virgin Mary, particularly since she is placed approximately on the central axis of the picture. This position might seem natural, but is in fact unusual in depictions of the Nativity, where Mary is generally placed to one side, next to the Child. The dark wall also acts as a contrasting background and forms a kind of baldachin over Mary. This manner of depicting the Virgin was another of Rogier's successful ideas, imitated by many other artists.
_ detail 1 a detail of the background: the Nativity.
_ detail 2 center of detail 1
_ detail 3 in the background of detail 1
right wing The scenes in the side panels depict the advent of the Son of God on earth being announced in miraculous visions to the Roman emperor Octavian (Augustus) and to the three Magi. The Christ Child receives the homage of both East and West, that is to say the whole world as displayed in the panorama of the open triptych: the West is symbolized by the Roman empire - which was regarded as the direct predecessor of the medieval Holy Roman Empire - the East by the Magi, and between them stands the Holy Land with Bethlehem, to the medieval mind the center of the world.
The three pictures in the triptych are united not so much by their background setting as by the figures. These are all on the same scale, and are linked to create a compositional line running through the three panels: arranged on both wings in a semicircle turning in, and on the central panel in a semicircle turning out, they curve rhythmically in an undulating line - a good example of Rogier's "sense of rhythm." The panels are also linked by the skillful distribution of color, with the red robe of the oldest king on the right, for instance, echoing the red garments of Saint Joseph on the central panel, while the red-patterned gold brocade worn by the central king is matched by Octavian's robe on the opposite wing. These mirror-image correspondences are slightly shifted toward the central axis, and there are many other interrelating color notes. However, the color also has other meanings. On the wings, where it is distributed in smaller areas over the surface of the picture and is thus more varied, it illustrates the secular magnificence of earthly rulers, while on the central panel the symphony of red, white and black makes a nobler and sterner effect. Symbolically, white stands for Mary's virginity, while the black worn by the donor was the fashionable color of the upper classes of the time. The color composition of the altarpiece as a whole, constantly balancing its slight asymmetries, is well calculated, although ultimately the impression is of rather too regular a kind of diversity, without deep meaning or resonance.