St. Luke Drawing the Virgin and other early Renaissance Flemish and Italian paintings / Eitan Kenner
The piece St. Luke Drawing the Virgin, c. 1435-40 by Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden is an oil and tempera painting presented at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Its narrative is a popular theme in art, showing St. Luke painting the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus. Such paintings were often painted for chapels of Saint Luke (saint patron of artists) in European churches during the Renaissance. Fifteenth century Flemish painting in general and this particular piece are characterized by oil painted human figures and objects featured realistically and with meticulous attention to detail. Many Flemish paintings including Van der Weyden’s St. Luke Drawing the Virgin are based on biblical narratives but happen in a contemporary 15th century Flemish setting. In those paintings, there are many symbols and motives presented intentionally to convey different moral, philosophical and mostly religious messages. Through studying and comparing different 15th century Flemish paintings as well as 14th century Italian paintings, one can really learn about the characteristics, expand their knowledge and therefore enjoy the beauty of paintings of that era and St. Luke Drawing the Virgin in particular which is among the most important northern European paintings in the United States.
St. Luke Drawing the Virgin is a masterpiece painted with oil and tempera. Oil painting gained popularity in northern Europe around the 15th century. Its advantages over previous painting techniques such as tempera (which will be discussed later), made it become the principal medium for creating artworks later on, and also made it possible for artists such as Van der Weyden to paint with such attention to detail. Oil is translucent, and dries slowly. It lets the artist paint in many different layers, and by varying the ratio of pigment and binder (oil), achieving many different colors. Oil makes it possible to really diversify texture and create such realism so there is no resonance of the artist’s presence. In St. Luke Drawing the Virgin there is a distinct difference between textures of materials: the wooden thrown Mary Magdalene is seated on, the marble tiles, the pillow St. Luke is kneeling on. There’s a great distinction in the different fabrics of Mary’s robe. One could almost “feel” the difference between the heavy thick golden parts of her robe and the light white cloth infant Jesus lays in. Van der Weyden utilizes the oil painting media to really show every pleat of the clothes, every little leaf in the garden, and wrinkles (especially in St. Luke’s face, the reason may be Van der Weyden’s intention to model the Saint’s features on his own 1, while Marry and Jesus are cleaner as a symbol of purity). There are very subtle lines drawn on the tapestry to show it was once folded before being hanged on the wall. The use of lights and shades emphasizes the foreground, or the main narrative of Luke, Mary and Jesus with dark colors, volume and shades, against the beautiful clear and sunny landscape in the background. One cannot describe oil painting without mentioning another great Flemish painter, who is considered by many (including himself) as the “inventor” of painting with oil media on panel wood, a man by the name of Jan van Eyck. Although it is known that oil painting had been used before, Jan van Eyck is definitely the first to really understand what oil could do. Jan van Eyck was a big influence on Rogier van der Weyden, and in fact, Van der Weyden’s St. Luke drawing the virgin is clearly derived from Van Eyck’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, c. 1435. Madonna of Chancellor Rolin presents Mary, crowned by a flying angle, presenting the infant Jesus to Rollin, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy whom the piece was commissioned by. Although the two pieces present different narratives, they are similar in setting...
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