Seeing is Believing

Jan van Eyck painted The Madonna with Canon van der Paele in 1436.

Jan van Eyck, The Madonna with Canon van der Paele, 1436, oil on oak panel, 141 x 176.5 cm, Groeninge Museum, Bruges.

            The man in white is Joris van der Paele, a secular canon, who commissioned this work in 1434. In addition to Mary and Jesus, the figure on the left is St. Donatian, the patron saint of the church where the work was displayed, and the figure in armor is van der Paele’s namesake, St. George. It is at this point that all certainty regarding this painting ends. The main questions typically deal with the original function of the work and how it was meant to be interpreted. Art historians have disagreed over whether the work was an altarpiece, a donor memorial, a personal painting for his home, or even a medical document. However, using the spectacles as a clarifying iconographic inclusion, I will argue that it is not only one of these interpretations that explains this painting, but rather a layered interpretation that embraces the inherent controversies included in Van Eyck’s work.[1]

     The most likely scenario is that the Van der Paele Madonna was meant as a memorial for its patron, Joris van der Paele. This clarification is important not only for interpreting the painting, but also understanding the different meanings the spectacles imbue into the work. In the 1430s in the Netherlands, as well as across Northern Europe, secular canons, such as van der Paele, frequently commissioned these types of pieces. As a large memorial work, living members of the congregation would pray for the patron after his or her death. This would, in theory, decrease the deceased patron’s time spent in purgatory. Therefore, commissioning this type of work was similar to buying indulgences while still alive, but had even more impact on the patron’s soul than a single indulgence would. Additionally, there was a demand among religious figures to have images of personal commemoration that would be displayed in the church where they worked and commissioned other religious artworks.

In addition to the relative frequency with which such works were commissioned and painted at this time, there are two factors that support the interpretation of this work as a memorial to van der Paele. The first is the frame itself which was heavily carved and extremely detailed. The lower portion of the frame translates as:

“Master Joris van der Paele, canon of this church, has had this work made by the painter Jan van Eyck, and he founded here two chaplaincies (to be served by) the clergy of the choir, in the year of Our Lord 1434, but the work was completed in 1436.”

The chaplaincies[2] were founded around the same time as the painting was commissioned and guaranteed that members of the church would regularly recite specific masses for the preservation of van der Paele’s soul. The frame directly connects the two events, with the painting seeming to document the artwork and the chaplaincies as two parts of the same ritual. Additionally, when Mary of Hungary visited the Cathedral and attempted to buy the painting, the church politely, but firmly turned her down, which indicates the paintings location in the Cathedral was vital to its existence.

            The second factor is van der Paele himself. He is presented in prayer, kneeling on the floor beside the Virgin, despite his advanced age and infirmary. He wears the stark white robe that befits his position in the church. His liturgical role is further indicated by the cloth hanging over his left arm. He holds a prayer book in his hands. His gaze is unfocused as he stares into the distance. He does not look at the Virgin but instead appears to have just looked up from reading. It was not entirely unusual to have the patron of a religious work staring off into the distance. In fact, it was something of a trend at this time. However, the fact that there is a pentimento that shows van der Paele’s irises moving to further enhance this distant gaze shows their importance to van Eyck and maybe even van der Paele himself. Scholars have therefore interpreted van der Paele’s gaze in conjunction with his open prayer book to be indicative of the Canon’s inner spiritual illumination while reading the sacred text. The scene, therefore, does not represent a general moment in time, but rather a more specific narrative moment. Van der Paele has stopped reading and looked up and the viewer is witnessing the visual embodiment of his prayer. While not all scholars agree on the last statement, the religiosity of the painting is difficult to ignore and van der Paele’s own devout nature is impossible to separate from the greater context of the work. This, in conjunction with the frame engraving and the commonality of memorial works for canons provides the necessary evidence to conclude that this work was meant as a memorial painting for Canon Joris van der Paele.

            However, the conflicting interpretations of this work are not the only unusual aspects of this painting. Van der Paele is also holding a pair of spectacles. Spectacles are a highly unusual object to be seen in a religious work or any painting at all. Why did Van Eyck, who was so interested in details, symbols, and optical devices include them in this work? This question has previously been overlooked or ignored as it complicates any interpretation of the painting, but their abnormal inclusion warrants a discussion. Spectacles were rarely seen in art in the first half of the fifteenth century because farsighted spectacles with convex lenses had only been invented at the end of the thirteenth century and nearsighted spectacles with concave lenses would not be invented for a couple of decades. They were still a new item and were a symbol of status and prestige that was not yet afforded to the masses. Milanese dukes would even order spectacles by the hundreds throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth century and give them to their courtiers as gifts and a sign of their favor, which further indicates their status as a luxury item. As such, spectacles may not have been known to the lay people, but the upper classes would have been aware of this new invention, especially as a marker of class or close relation to the upper echelons of fifteenth century society. Additionally, spectacles at this time were used exclusively for reading close up. As some of the most educated people aside from royalty, monastic figures not only used spectacles for reading and writing spiritual texts, but also helped in the manufacturing of spectacles. As a scribe at the papal curia in Rome for many years, van der Paele is indicative of the kind of religious figure who would have known and probably used spectacles. Despite not being a part of the upper class.

Detail from The Madonna with Canon van der Paele.

            In the painting, van der Paele holds his spectacles gently against his prayer book in a seemingly awkward pose. However, as there had not yet been invented a way to hold the spectacles up to one’s face, other than tying a piece of string around your head, it was not unusual to see spectacles being held directly over a text. In this way, they served almost as a magnifying glass would. Van Eyck depicts the spectacles with astonishing detail. The lens distorts the text beneath it although the text itself is not legible when under the lens or otherwise. Like every other aspect of this painting, there are disagreements regarding the type of lens depicted. Some scholars have argued that the spectacles are concave lenses for nearsightedness. This conclusion has been drawn partially through an examination of the spectacles, but also as a way to explain van der Paele’s distant gaze. If the spectacles were for nearsightedness (inability to see far away), his removal of them would cause him to cease to be able to focus on items in the distance, thus his seemingly glazed look. As simple as this explanation would be, as has already been discussed, such lenses were not invented for another thirty years. Therefore, the spectacles have to be for farsightedness, inability to see close up. As convenient as the previous explanation was for understanding van der Paele’s gaze, there are alternate justifications for the gaze that will be discussed later. The farsighted nature of his spectacles does however explain their placement directly on the book and why he would be holding them at all in such a scenario.

            The last aspect to investigate is why specifically van der Paele chose to be depicted holding his spectacles. If he needed spectacles to see, that would have been common knowledge among the church congregation as he performed masses and other duties. Whether he needed them or not, it was still unusual to be depicted with them. Additionally, this was not a small, casual portrait that would have been in his home. This work is large and it would have been impossible to overlook it within the public setting of the church. It was also painted by one of the most famous artists in Northern Europe at the time and documentation shows that copies of the painting were readily available to those who wanted it. Plus, it had a reputation as one of the treasures of Bruges from an early date. This begs the question of why van der Paele would want himself to be depicted holding spectacles. The answer is threefold. First of all, they emphasize his prayer book and as previously discussed, his distant gaze has strong religious connotations. The glasses themselves also have religious undertones as one of their associations at the time, especially when displayed over text like this, was not with improving the vision of the reader, but rather with the enlargement and clarification of the text.[3] As the book is most likely a prayer book, this association was symbolic of the enlargement and clarification of the religious text both literally and figuratively: the text was made visible to the ailing van der Paele and his weakened eyesight, but also allowed his clear understanding and interpretation of the text for the congregation.

Secondly, the spectacles were a luxury item. As previously mentioned, they were collected and given as gifts by the upper classes of society, they were a newer invention and thus relatively scarce and they were regularly made of two of the finest materials at the time: glass and gold. They were also seen as a mark of social distinction. Their inclusion in this painting therefore elevated van der Paele socially and indicated that he was a man of some means who was knowledgeable enough to know about spectacles and needed assistance reading the important religious texts. They equate him with a social class that he was not naturally born into, but had rather achieved through his various positions in the church.

The final aspect returns to the idea of the painting as a memorial. How van der Paele was depicted in this painting preserved his identity for centuries. Thus, all of the symbols in the painting, as well as the painting as a whole, work to create his identity. Van der Paele was the illegitimate child of people of no importance. He did not attend university, come from means, or have a traditional education. But, he was still able to establish himself and have a respectable career as a scribe at the Papal Curia in Rome before his retirement in Bruges. This was a man with a chip on his shoulder, always trying to prove himself and establish his worth because while in Rome, he was surrounded by some of the most well-educated and wealthy figures in Renaissance society. Now in Bruges, he had a respectable career and position in the church and was a member of the higher religious society in the city. By holding his spectacles, van der Paele is able to present himself as a man who is educated, cultured, and well-off despite his lack of born status and his spectacles document his permanent religious devotion.

Detail from The Madonna with Canon van der Paele.

            The contemporary connotations of the spectacles are not the only aspect of this painting that helped van der Paele craft his eternal identity. His choice of artist and the way van Eyck executed the work also play an important role. In 1436, van Eyck was at the end of his career. He would die only five years later in 1441. He was therefore already well established and very popular as an artist. Choosing him to paint this memorial piece conveys two different concepts to the viewers. First it conveys that van der Peale is a cultured enough member of society to know about van Eyck and for van Eyck to agree to the commission. Second of all, it shows that van der Paele could afford to commission van Eyck to paint this large-scale memorial painting. This work would have been expensive, but as it has already been established, and was known openly at the time, van der Paele was receiving dispensations for his salary. Additionally, van der Paele did not have family money or support. Therefore, van der Paele was not commissioning multiple paintings, but probably only one of this scale. Everything about this painting can then be given more weight because it would have been given the status of a luxury cultural item for van der Paele himself in addition to the common people viewing it. This endows the painting with more importance for van der Paele in general as well as the message it conveys to the viewers.

            Now that the painting itself, the spectacles, and van der Paele as a patron have been discussed in terms of their importance to the interpretation of the painting, the last component to consider is van Eyck himself. He is relevant in regards to van der Paele as a patron, but also because of the stylistic tendencies he had as an artist. While spectacles were unusual in paintings, van Eyck as well as many other northern European artists were using lenses and mirrors to help make their paintings more realistic in terms of depth and also as a way to add another point of interest to the picture plane. The use, interest, and access to these new inventions allowed artists like van Eyck to not only experiment, but also understand how lenses and mirrors worked. Therefore, although there have been disagreements about the type of lenses in van der Paele’s spectacles, van Eyck most likely made them specifically to appear that way and purposefully did not want the text below them to be legible. This knowledge and use of lenses and mirrors are visible in other works by van Eyck, most notably, The Arnolfini Double Portrait.

            Even more importantly than a scientific understanding of lenses and mirrors is the symbolic language developed around them by northern European artists. At this time in the Netherlands, artists were not disguising symbols in the work for their own amusement. Instead, they were making them obvious to educated viewers. In one way, this made paintings even more of a luxury item then they already were because only the educated viewer could fully understand the meaning of the painting. But there was also a way that disguised symbols added to the religious experience of viewing the painting. A painting with a religious topic or theme was already a religious experience simply through viewing the painting and thinking about the topic it represents. However, with the disguised symbols, viewers had to work to reveal the deeper meaning. This revelation allowed the viewers to not only have a religious experience by viewing the work, but also, they were able to experience spiritual revelation as they worked to understand the disguised symbols. This practice made it impossible to separate the symbolic meaning of the work from the visual effect of the art in general.

            Northern European artists were interested in this language of disguised symbols within visual imagery, van Eyck in particular utilized this practice in almost all of his paintings. Discovering and interpreting the symbols he included in his works was vital to any understanding of them. The Van der Paele Madonna is simpler than many of van Eyck’s works so every item included has even more importance. Looking at the figures as a complete grouping, the only thing that seems to connect the four figures, other than their religious piety and importance, is the fact that they are all holding an object. The two saints on either side both hold their identifying religious items relating to their hagiography. Mary holds a plant as well as the Christ child. That leaves van der Paele. He is holding his prayer book, but also his spectacles. This automatically endows the spectacles with the same religious weight and importance as the other items in the painting. They also serve as a way to further identify van der Paele. All of this works to show that the spectacles are not simply a random item that van Eyck included in the painting, but instead an important symbolic object for van Eyck and an important religious and identifying object for van der Paele.

            The spectacles were clearly important for van der Paele, but what was van Eyck using them to symbolize? I argue that his own symbolic meaning supported the identity van der Paele was trying to create as a religious figure to be looked up to. In addition to the spectacles themselves, there is also a mention of mirrors and lenses in the frame inscription. The lower frame inscription has already been mentioned, but another aspect of the frame discusses Mary as an unspotted mirror. This in itself is not an uncommon comparison. In fact, Mary was frequently compared to an unspotted mirror as a way to emphasis her purity and lack of moral impurities. This concept of the unspotted mirror became a universal symbol for those who exhibited religious purity and were incorruptible. The reference to the mirror in the frame in connection to this Mary is especially interesting. Typical this concept of the unspotted mirror is discussed in conjunction with the Virgin Mary, but this painting focuses more on Mary the Madonna and mother of Christ. It therefore creates a pure identity for the entire painting. Additionally, in terms of purity, St. George and his inclusion in this work is especially important. St. George was considered to be very pure and was known as the Virgin Saint. His physical connection with van der Paele through his position behind him and his hand reaching towards van der Paele, aligns him with this concept of purity exhibited by St. George. However, his holding of the spectacles, also connects him to the image of purity exhibited by Mary through the unspotted mirror. Therefore, by including the spectacles van Eyck is able to identify van der Paele as a religiously pure figure who is connect to both Mary and St. George through more than his physical position in the painting and his religious vocation.

            The painting of The Madonna with Canon van der Paele is mired in contrasting interpretations and general contradictions. However, using the spectacles that van der Paele holds as a vital iconographic symbol, it is possible to produce a coherent interpretation that embraces the contradictions included as one of the intended meanings. First, by studying the spectacles and the history of their development, it is possible to discern that the spectacles are for farsightedness and that the painting is a memorial work. Then, their status as a luxury item and status symbol reflect on the patron, van der Paele. They provide him with the characteristics of a cultured, educated man of means who holds a respected position in society. Finally, by viewing the spectacles through the language of visual imagery employed by van Eyck and other northern European artists, it is possible to understand their religious connotations and the way the spectacles and mirrors connect van der Paele physically with the Virgin Mary and St. George but also with their religious purity. Therefore, although most scholars overlook the inclusion of the spectacles in this painting, by examining them, a better understand of this painting as a whole can be reached. Canon van der Paele is present as an important, educated, man of means, but also as a religiously pure figure in the church. These two identities can be contradictory, but also reflect the two sides of an individual: the personal and the religious.  

[1] So as to avoid confusion, when referring to glasses worn on the face and used for vision, I will call them spectacles. Lenses, when mentioned, will refer to concave or convex lenses that are not a part of a pair of spectacles. Additionally, glasses will not refer to spectacles but rather plain glass or mirrors when specified. The purpose of this to avoid all possible confusion as glass was still an experimental material and new developments for it and uses were still being discovered and called by a variety of names.

[2] The chaplaincies mentioned here were formal prayers and masses that someone could commission (and van der Paele did) for after your death. When you died, if you had commissioned chaplaincies, the congregation and the priest would perform these prayers and masses that were dedicate to you to shorten your time in purgatory even after you were already dead. These chaplaincies were important because under this interpretation, the painting would have served a similar purpose as the mentioned chaplaincies.

[3] Hanley, “Optical Symbolism as Optical Description,” 13. This interpretation of glasses is opaque, but the general consensus is that they symbolized the clarification of text in a more philosophical way instead of in a literal way.

-Taylor Curry


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