Rogier van der Weyden

Rogier van der Weyden
Born 1399 or 1400
Died June 18, 1464
Nationality Flemish
Field Painting
Famous Works Deposition of Christ, Miraflores Altarpiece

Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1399 – 1464), also known as Rogier de la Pasture, was a Flemish painter from the 15th century who is considered, along with Van Eyck and Campin, to be one of the greatest painters of the Early Netherlands school. In 1427, the city council of Tournai honored him with a ceremony that seems to have been an academic graduation. Following this honor, Van der Weyden became Robert Campin’s apprentice in Tournai until 1432, the year Campin lost his position as dean of the guild due to scandal.

Van der Weyden completed his first great work, the Deposition of Christ in 1435, shortly after the end of his guild apprenticeship with Campin. It is a panel painting in vivid primary colors accented with gold, the work is done in a strongly realistic style that was innovative for its time. Christ is shown being lifted down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who are dressed as wealthy burghers. To the left side of the scene, the Virgin Mary swoons while Saint John the Evangelist, Mary of Clopas and Mary Salome come to her aid. To the right of the scene, Mary Magdalene holds a pose very much like a genuflection.

The Deposition Masterwork

The Deposition was done as a chapel commission piece for the Louvian guild of Archers.  It is very likely that Van der Weyden saw the commission as an opportunity to showcase his work. Although his style at the time of the painting was still highly dependent upon his training from Campin, the work was strong and innovative. He gained lasting renown, not only in the Low Countries but in Italy as well. Around the same time he was made master of the Guild of St. Luke, following in his teacher’s footsteps. The following year he was appointed as the official painter to the city of Brussels. Around this time, he formally changed his name from de la Pasture to Van der Weyden, following traditional Dutch naming practices.

The Deposition set the tone and style for the rest of his pieces. His early academic training lent sophistication to his compositions, and his studies with the great master Campin helped refine his style. Van der Weyden’s earlier Saint George and the Dragon (1432), while having the figural sophistication of his later works, is more rigid and less vivid than his Campin influenced work.

Miraflores Altarpiece

The Brussels appointment opened many opportunities for van der Weyden, and his fame, prosperity and fortune grew. His Miraflores Altarpiece was commissioned by Juan II of Castile and donated by the king to the Miraflores monastery in 1445. Isabella I of Castile ordered an almost identical copy of the work for the royal chapel in Granada. The work was so admired that a third copy was also made. The work influenced altarpieces by other painters such as Christus, Bouts, and Memling.

A triptych illustrating the life, death and resurrection of Christ, the Miraflores altarpiece consists of three iconic scenes. On the left, the Virgin Mary, in a pale gown, and Saint Joseph, in red, attend to the infant Jesus in Mary’s lap. In the middle panel, the body of Christ is attended to by Saint Peter, in blue to the left, and Luke the Evangelist, in red to the right, while in the lap of the Virgin Mother Mary in Red. On the right panel, a resurrected Christ in a red cloak appears to Mary, who wears a royal blue habit and white wimple. Each scene is surrounded by Gothic arches in gilt and embellished with paintings of fantastic Gothic decorations.

Though realistic, the work is loaded with religious symbolism. Mary’s changing gown colors represent various attributes of her saintly person: white for purity, red for compassion, and blue for perseverance. Each panel has backgrounds done using perspective, and each panel contains a motto inscribed in Latin on a curling bit of paper at the top of the arch.

Portraits and Commissions

The fame of the Deposition and the Miraflores Altarpieces gained van der Weyden many other commissions, including many portraits of wealthy and noble patrons as well as more religious art. His St. John Altarpiece is very similar in style to the Miraflores work, but shows scenes from the life of St. John Baptist, from the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, to the Baptism of Jesus and finally the Beheading of John the Baptist on the final right panel. Other religious works and fragments of works survive, including a famous fragment entitled “Magdalene Reading”. This fragment most probably came from a larger lost work, “Virgin and Child with Saints”, which only survived until the end of the 17th century.

Of his secular portraits, some of his most well-known are of wealthy women in sumptuous dress. Although these portraits are highly stylized and idealized, they still capture much of the personality and liveliness of the subject.

His Portrait of a Young Woman (1445) shows a woman in a luxurious gray gown trimmed with sable fur. The complex folds of her white linen wimple and veil are carefully rendered and shown in great detail; he even included the tiny pins which connect the coif, wimple, and veil. Though the subject does not smile, her eyes are lively and fixed on the viewer.

By contrast, the portrait of Jean de Gros (1450-60), a famous tax collector, shows a young man with hands folded in prayer before him. His dark hair, dark clothing, and distant gaze accentuate the subject’s pious and withdrawn pose. Unlike the delicate lines in Portrait of Young Woman, the painting is done in the more starkly shadowed style that van der Weyden used in his religious works.

Portrait of a Lady (1460), shows a masterful blend of the aforementioned portrait styles. The lady is shown in a pious pose with eyes downcast and her features are painted very strongly. Even so, van der Weyden used a delicate technique to render her fine, transparent wimple and partlets, and her features, while strongly painted, have a translucent delicacy to them that shows the artist’s mastery of brush and color.

Rogier van der Weyden’s style and technique was studied and emulated by other artists throughout Northern Europe and Italy. Though he was forgotten for a time, his work was eventually rediscovered and recognized as some of the greatest of the Flemish school.

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