Jan van Eyck, plein Bruges

Van Eyck was a homo universalis, like Leonardo da Vinci

Interview with Professor Maximiliaan Martens

Maximiliaan Martens is a master of the Flemish Masters. For decades, the professor of art history at Ghent University has published on 15th- to mid-16th-century Flemish art. He is also specialized in the technical imaging of artistic objects outside the visual spectrum, which reveals the invisible aspects of an artwork, and so is often used in restoration. That was the case with, among others, the restoration of Van Eyck’s unqualified masterpiece, the Ghent Altarpiece. Add to this that Professor Martens was the curator of internationally renowned exhibitions about Van Eyck, and you will understand: he is the perfect expert for a discussion on conferences and the Flemish Master that is Jan van Eyck.

Maximiliaan Martens
Jan van Eyck, plein Bruges

From Brussels to Bruges, and vice versa

Maximiliaan Martens: “Obviously, in Van Eyck’s time, there were no conferences in the modern sense of the word. There is an indication, however, that there was a meeting of various St Luke’s guilds – as the guild of painters was called – in Tournai, in the late 1430s. The context for this is vague, but we can assume that an important exchange of ideas occurred there.

This also happened on the occasion of important festivities, such as the marriage of Charles the Bold with Margaret of York in Bruges. In 1468, artists from across the Burgundian Netherlands came together to work on the decorations for the feast. For a period of a few days up to two months, some 200 artists gathered in a conference-like setting. This explains why Brussels-types suddenly appear in certain artworks in Bruges, and vice versa.

In 1454, a similar initiative, Philip the Good’s “Banquet du Faisant”, had taken place in Lille, in order to muster the members of the Order of the Golden Fleece for a new crusade. There, too, artists worked together in the same constellation for an extended period, decorating the streets and staging the banquet.

So, we do know some examples of conference-like settings. The details that we have about this are very dry, such as expenses on the city account. There is some evidence of exuberance, however, such as papier-mâché constructions that birds flew out of. So, we have a vague picture of things.”


We do know of examples of conference-like settings in the fifteenth century.

Did Van Eyck read Pliny the elder?

A conference in art and heritage has many intersections with other fields. That’s no coincidence, according to Professor Martens. The Flemish masters of the fifteenth century demonstrated a universal knowledge as well.

Maximiliaan Martens: “That is the subject of our current research, in which we are creating a knowledge profile of artists in this period. What sources of knowledge did they have access to? What books and scholars, human capital, circulated at Court? The knowledge of Latin certainly appears to be important, as does knowledge of classical antiquity and some classical authors. We used to think that the Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis was only known to the first generation of humanists in Italy, but now we suspect that Van Eyck was also familiar with this work.

Alchemy, the precursor of chemistry, is another important field of knowledge. Van Eyck’s experiments with oil paint – which were later described – certainly point in that direction. He experimented with materials by mixing them, bringing them to different temperatures, purifying them and distilling them. And then there was theology – very important, as Christianity was the starting point of everything in those days. Van Eyck was certainly aware of controversies surrounding theological positions and dogmas. He was an intellectual among artists, a homo universalis, like Leonardo da Vinci.


Van Eyck Studio

Dirk Bouts was assisted by two theologians from the University of Leuven.

Painters were assisted by experts. This was the case, for instance, with the triptych of the Last Supper, which Dirk Bouts painted for Saint Peter’s Church in Leuven. The contract has been preserved, and it states that the painter had to be assisted by two theologians from the University of Leuven. So, there was consultation with experts, certainly for prominent commissions.

With respect to Van Eyck, you notice this assistance in very subtle details. In the Ghent Altarpiece, there is an angel playing the organ. Van Eyck altered the position of the angel’s fingers when he painted them – in the underdrawing, the fingering was different. Musicologists have determined that as a result, the angel is now striking a more correct chord for polyphonic music. This adjustment must have been made on the advice of an organ player or musicians, who pointed out to Van Eyck that the fingering was incorrect. Expert advice certainly played a role.”

Last Supper, Dirk Bouts, St Peters Cathedral Leuven
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