On my arnolfinimystery.com website I pointed out the Van Eyck link to the Seven Sacraments Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden, connecting the Sacrament of Marriage to the Arnolfini Portrait. But there are other links. In fact, in a remarkable tribute to his reputation and stature, Van Eyck features in all seven sacraments.
Van der Weyden has also picked up on the “Great Seal” theme in the Arnolfini Portrait. All seven sacraments are “sealed” in some way. Holy oil is applied in four of the sacraments and applied with a brush (another reference to Van Eyck). Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders and Extreme Unction. The gift of Confirmation is further sealed by applying a headband; the sacrament of Penance or Confession is sealed by secrecy and the laying of hands; the sacrament of the Eucharist is sealed by the blood Christ shed on the Cross; and the sacrament of marriage is sealed or tied by binding a stole around the couple’s hands.
Jan van Eyck died July 9, 1441, at Bruges, and was buried in the graveyard of the Church of St Donatian. In 1442 his body was exhumed and reinterred inside the church. Twenty years later the church was elevated to cathedral status when the first bishop of Bruges was installed. Occupying forces of the French Revolution destroyed the building in 1799. It would not be unreasonable to assume that the church interior in Van der Weyden’s painting represents the Bruge church of St Donatian.
The sacraments are depicted in order and in a processional or amulatory manner, three on the left wing of the tryptich, one on the centre panel, and three on the right wing.
1. Sacrament of Baptism
Sometime in the first half of 1434, Van Eyck and his wife Margaret had a child baptised, probably their first-born and a son. Philip the Good was the godfather but did not attend the ceremony. Instead he sent Peter de Bauffremont, lord of Chargny, as his proxy. He is pictured below in red. Van Eyck stands next to him in a black hat, the angel’s scroll pointing to him. The black-brimmed hat is a pointer to Van Eyck’s proxy role in the Arnolfini Portrait. To the left of the artist is the godmother and possibly the Duchess of Burgundy, Isabella. On her left is the mother of the child and Van Eyck’s wife Margaret, gazing wistfully at her husband. She is depicted wearing the same dress as in her portrait painted by Van Eyck (below).
There is a reference by the art historian James Weale in his book on the life and works of Hubert and John van Eyck that in March 1442, at the request of Lambert van Eyck, the Chapter of St Donatian, Bruges, “grants permission for the body of his brother John, buried in the precincts, to be, with the bishop’s licence, translated into the church and buried near the font, on condition of the foundation of an anniversary and of compliance with the rights of fabric.”
Van der Weyden depicts this in his painting as the raised stone covering the grave and supporting the baptisimal font. In baptism the child is raised to new life in Christ. And so in death Van Eyck is resurrected to new life through the Sacrament.
2. Sacrament of Confirmation
Of the seven sacraments this is not the easiest to assign to Van Eyck. It depicts the bishop of Tournai, Jean Chevrot, and an assistant applying chrism oil to the forehead and symbolically sealing in the sacrament with headbands. As three of the children walk away after receiving the sacrament, two turn their heads in the direction of the baptisimal font, perhaps in recognition of their father, Jan, in a similar fashion that Margaret turns her head towards her husband at the font. The smaller child, dressed in a green gown stares straight ahead. Was she born after Jan’s death? Or is she a child of Margaret from a possible second marriage?
It is known that Van Eyck had at least one daughter, named Livina, who entered the St Agnes’ convent at Maaseyck in 1450, helped with a dowry given by Philip the Good. Could the child in green be looking across to the other side of the church and to the seated woman wearing a green gown located at the seventh sacrament? Is Van der Weyden suggesting that the child and the woman are one and the same person? And is the woman’s black mantilla the style of headwear adopted by St Agnes’ convent?
3. Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation
The third sacrament, sometimes referred to as ‘Confession’ shows a man seated on a mercy or judgment chair and absolving the kneeling penitent. The hooded ‘minister’ is depicted as one of the ‘Just Judges’ from the Ghent Altarpiece painted by Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert. There is divided opinion on who this particular ‘Just Judge’ is – Philip the Good or Jan van Eyck. The black garments would suggest Philip, as he dressed in black after the assassination of his father John the Fearless . Also the blue cassock matches the colour of the cassock worn by Philip depicted attending Van Eyck in the seventh sacrament. Most likely the third sacrament scene refers to the aftermath of the Ghent war in which the city rebelled against the taxes imposed by Philip in 1447. The Duke declared war on Ghent in 1452 which lasted a year and resulted in the death of thousands. The city eventually surrendered and its officials were forced to plea for forgiveness before the ‘Just Judge’.
4. Sacrament of the Eucharist
While the observer’s focus is drawn to the stunning Crucifixion scene, Van der Weyden also encompasses in the same frame the full meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross, that of the Resurrection, with the elevation of the Sacred Host after its consecration. The celebration is a Requiem Mass, indicated by the black chasuble of the celebrant, a Eucharistic service to remember someone who has died. This is the connection to Van Eyck. When the artist’s body was reinterred inside the church the bishop stipulated that it was “on condition of the foundation of an anniversary” – meaning a memorial or requiem Mass.
Another telling reference to Van Eyck is the tonsured head of the priest, echoing the mirror tabernacle in the Arnolfini Portrait. The elevated Eucharist is also a reference to the the theme of the Real Presence in the same work. The green coloured drape around the altar and the white cloth both point to the woman in her green dress and white mantilla as being a type of Virgin Mary and the altar on which her Son is offered. The blue-coloured backdrop, depicting the heavenly home also reflects the blue undergarment worn by the woman in Van Eyck’s painting.
The tearful apostle John is shown as a likeness of Jan van Eyck. Just as the disciple took Mary into his home, so too did Van Eyck take the mother of Jesus into his heart, typified by the number of his paintings in which she features.
• The Holy Eucharist is elevated during a Requiem Mass, signified by the black vestments of the celebrant. Saints Peter and Paul are the two statues either side of the altar.
5. Sacrament of Holy Orders
Here a young man is ordained as a priest, and his hands annointed with sacred chrism oil. The bishop is St Donatian, after whom the church is named. He is also the patron saint of Bruge. The Van Eyck connection is made via a painting he completed in 1436, Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele. It shows the clergyman kneeling alongside St Michael and St Donatian standing opposite. A more youthful depiction of Joris Van der Paele is placed standing behind St Donatian in Van der Weyden’s fifth sacrament. In the image below St Donatian is seen holding a wheel with five lit candles, an attribute given to the saint that records the time he was saved from drowning by clinging to a carriage wheel. In Van der Weyden’s depiction St Donatian is encircled by five men representing acolytes who assist with ceremonial duties such as lighting altar candles.
• St Donatian depicted in the Seven Sacraments and (right) in Jan van Eyck’s painting of the Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele.
6. Sacrament of Marriage
The scene illustrating the sixth sacrament, shows the marriage of Charles the Bold to the French princess Isabella of Bourbon, in October 1454. It was an arranged marriage to fulfill the conditions of the Treaty of Arras between France and Burgundy made earlier in 1435.
The two witnesses are Philip and his wife Isabella in the guise of Jan van Eyck and his wife Margaret. The priest is Nicholas Rolin, Chancellor to Philip the Good and a central figure in negotiating the Treaty of Arras. His stole is used to bind the couple in matrimony, and so reflect the binding agreement of the Arras Treaty and also the covenant themes presented in the Arnolfini Portrait. The marriage produced one child, Mary of Burgundy, before Isabella of Bourbon died at the early age of 29.
7. Sacrament of Exteme Unction (Last Rites)
The seventh sacrament shows Van Eyck receiving the Last Rites in a scene that typifies him being supported by the Church, (the bed he lies on), the State (Philip of Burgundy), his family (wife Margaret) and Heaven, (St Luke, patron saint of artists).
Van Eyck’s hand is anointed by St Luke with sacramental Oil of the Sick (Oleum Infirmorum) – applied with a brush – reverencing Van Eyck’s gift as an oil painter.
Van der Weyden also repeats elements from the Arnolfini Portrait: a woman wearing a green dress with blue sleeves… a lit candle… Van Eyck’s left arm placed across his body, right hand extended and supported by Philip’s raised hand… the water basin Van Eyck looks into as a mirror… the red bed… its headboard, a replica of the back of the chair… the straw under the pillow, the brush…
St Luke is recognisable from another of Van der Weyden’s painting, St Luke Drawing the Virgin. It is said to be a self-portrait. The gamma cross motif on St Luke’s stole verifies his Greek identity. It also refers to the Four Evangelists, imitating the tetramorph figure Van Eyck placed on the high-back chair above the brush in the Arnolfini Portrait.
Philip the Good, also a patron or artists, is attired in the role of ‘server’ to his valet de chambre Van Eyck; the cotton wool in his left hand is used to apply the holy oil but, more significantly, represents the wool and cloth industry that made Burgundy such a prosperous state, and hinting at the ‘merchant’ guise of Philip in the Arnolfini Portrait.
The figure of Van Eyck’s wife Margaret dressed in a green garment with blue sleeves evokes Van Eyck’s portrayal of Isabella as the Virgin Mary. It is thought that Margaret was the model for Van Eyck in this role.
The ‘three in one’ theme is repeated by Van der Weyden. Seen as the Virgin Mary the woman holds a lighted candle. She is a light that leads to her Son, Jesus. Her presence at the deathbed scene is also her response to the Catholic ‘Hail Mary’ prayer that ends with the words “pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death”.
Update (March 3, 2018)… There is another take on this group of three men. The kneeling figure is a representation of Jean Wauquelin, a writer and translator noted for his three-volume work the Chronicles of Hainaut. The frontspiece is a miniature painted by Rogier van der Weyden in 1447. It shows Wauquelin presenting one of the volumes to Philip the Good and the young Charles the Bold looking on. In this sense it can be understood that Van der Weyden (in his role as St Luke and writer of one of the Gospels) has recorded in his painting the sacramental life of Van Eyck, while Wauquein prepares the body for translation. Van Eyck’s body was originally buried in the graveyard of St Donatian’s church before being translated and reinterred near to the baptismal font inside the building.
The main focus of Rogier Van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments triptych is the Crucifixion scene. It links to the death portrayal of Van Eyck who appears to be staring into the reflective metal bowl that represents the mirror and tabernacle door in his own painting. Is Van Eyck seeing beyond the door, the veil, and experiencing the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? In the Catholic Church the Eucharist is referred to as the Viaticum (Bread for the Journey) and administered, if possible, to the dying person as part of the last rites. It is seen as Christ accompanying the person in death.
• Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror; but then we shall be seeing face to face. The knowledge that I have now is imperfect; but then I shall know as fully as I am known. (1 Corinthians 12 : 12)
The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1445-1450) by Rogier van der Weyden,
Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp
• text © bernard gallagher • posted August 11, 2018