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Ryan Fritsch

History of Art 340A

Dr. Catherine Harding
University of Victoria
26 November 1999
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Art is the visual voice of the society in which it is created. As art and society are intrinsically
linked on such a visceral level, it is only natural to surmise that as one changes so does the other.
Few points in history expose this co-evolution more clearly than the emergence of the capitalist
classes during the Northern Renaissance. The middle of the fifteenth century in northern Europe
was a tumultuous boiling-pot of revolutionary political and philosophical thought, a time when
tensions between the practical implications of an emergent mercantile class and religious
conservatism were becoming increasingly manifest. The eventual results of this pre-Reformation
period were expressed socially in two ways: in literature, through the harshly critical 95 Thesis of
Martin Luther; in art, through the “devotional patronage” of Jan Van Eyck. In this essay, I will
present an interpretation of two of Van Eyck’s significant commissions of bourgeoisie devotional
patronage, the “Madonna with Canon Van der Paele” and “Madonna with Chancellor Rolin”, and
illustrate how these paintings, in context of the socio-economic changes taking place in the pre-
Reformation Northern Renaissance, attempt to balance the the avaricious and usurious secular
activities of the respective patrons with their need to appease the dogma of the Church and the
judgment of heaven.

The patronage of painting can be read in many ways, and on many levels. Certainly, more
obvious interpretations of religious art patronage focus on the demonstration of “high social
standing... as a prestigious expenditure”1 or to “enhance acts of worship”2 in an impressive
public demonstration, or even to “legitimize the office they held”3 through ecclesiastical license.
However, when you consider patronage in context of the social and economic factors governing the
the lives of the patrons, much deeper levels of interpretation exist. We can demonstrate such
analysis in the patronage of Chancellor Rolin’s 1435 commission of the “Madonna with the
Chancellor Rolin” and Canon Van der Paele’s 1436 commission of the “Madonna with Canon
Van der Paele”. In these Jan Van Eyck paintings, the examination of the detailed and complex
symbolism within the images and careful consideration of the social and economic changes taking
place at the time, reveal a patronage not of simple prestigious expenditure or to enhance acts of
Prevenier, Walter. (1986). The Burgundian Netherlands. New York: Cambridge University Press, 320.
Prevenier, Walter. (1986). The Burgundian Netherlands. New York: Cambridge University Press, 320.
Prevenier, Walter. (1986). The Burgundian Netherlands. New York: Cambridge University Press, 331.
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worship appears, but rather, the patron’s “concern for his own salvation. Works of art, like a
concrete prayer, were thus seen as a redemption for earthly sins.”4

Chancellor Rolin and Canon Van der Paele had much to be concerned about. As economic
power in Europe shifted away from Italy and to the new bourgeois economy at Antwerp5 , they
found themselves ensconced in a fascinating time in history when the mercantile classes and
international trade and finance were ascendant. However, ecclesiastical power was still paramount,
and the extremely wealthy Rolin and Van der Paele had to ensure that they operated well within the
bounds dictated by dogma of the Christian church. For those in business, the chief worry was of
committing the sins of usury and avarice. In his masterpiece Summa Theologica, St. Thomas
Aquinas outlines his theological doctrine of the just price, remarking that “ divine law leaves
nothing unpunished which is contrary to virtue. Hence, according to divine law, it is considered
unlawful if the equality required by justice is not observed in buying and selling.”6 For Aquinas
then, like the Aristotelian model he is interpreting Christianity through, dealings where a profit was
made through the reception of interest, or usury, was “contrary to the justice established by divine
law.”7 Further, he argued, the merchant and trader should ensure that the price they are charging
for the application of their labour should be no more than the costs of production, with a sum added
only so much as is required to cover the cost of the materials, insurance against loss, and a modest
amount left over for the well being and living of the individual. The result of this was that at the end
of the day, as much attention was paid to the “moral balance sheet” as to the economic one. And
to ensure a healthy moral balance sheet, one was expected to do good things with their excess of
money, for the need to satisfy the ecclesiastical world of business with the secular world of
business was of immense import, as “all departments of life, the State, and society, education and
science, law, commerce, and industry, were to be regulated in accordance with the law of God.”8 In
this light, the patronage of Rolin and Van der Paele reveals itself as something less than
Prevenier, Walter. (1986). The Burgundian Netherlands. New York: Cambridge University Press, 316.
Tawney, R.H. (1990). Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 82.
Baldwin, Summerfield (1937). Business in the Middle Ages. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 13.
Baldwin, Summerfield (1937). Business in the Middle Ages. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 14.
Tawney, R.H. (1990). Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 100.
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purely devotional: motivated by the need to commensurate their secular activities of daily business
with their ecclesiastical indoctrination, what emerges in the narrative of Van Eyck’s commissioned
works is not purely devotional, but devotional patronage, the purchasing of the way to eternal
sanctity and redemption. That Luther harshly criticized these demonstrations that “ all things have
their price - future salvation as much as present felicity ”9 was of little consequence to these new

As a shrewd and wealthy capitalist, and one of the “ most important entrepreneurs of wine
in Burgundy [whose] vineyards were of major importance for the economic well-being
in...Autun,”10 Rolin had much reason to worry about the sins of usury and avarice, and ensuring
that his moral balance sheet was well in order would have been of paramount concern. To this end,
it is important to note that, some time after commissioning the painting from Van Eyck in 1435, he
founded in 1443 the social hospital of the Hôtel-Dieu, “undoubtedly a socially motivated act of
piety...and a means whereby he could spend his wealth, accumulated in government service, wisely
and honorably.”11 Clearly, his social conscience and was at the forefront of his mind throughout his
life. And we can see this preoccupation reflected in the “Madonna with Chancellor Rolin”. The
first thing that strikes the viewer is how close Rolin physically is the Virgin and Christ Child, as if
“Mary has joined the donor...[in a] mystical visitation.”12 And yet, these two figures seem oddly
distanced, and clearly separate in their own worlds. For the iconography of “Madonna with
Chancellor Rolin” divides the painting into left and right, stressing the heavenly and pious against
the earthly and secular aspects of religious activity. In the capital of the pillar above the Virgin, for
example, is depicted the meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek. This story was, from the time of
Augustine, a “type of par excellence of the institution of the Eucharist”13 , emphasizing the offering
of the bloodless Christian sacrifice. Abraham too is representative of the ultimate sacrifice, willing
to give the life of his only son in an expression of unwavering religious faith.
Tawney, R.H. (1990). Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 98.
Snyder, James. Northern Renaissance Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. 1985, 110.
Prevenier, Walter. (1986). The Burgundian Netherlands. New York: Cambridge University Press, 328.
Snyder, James. Northern Renaissance Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. 1985, 109.
Snyder, James. Northern Renaissance Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. 1985, 110.
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Contrast this to the left-handed pillar above Rolin, detailing tan episode from the life of Noah who,
after having planted the first antediluvian grapevine, indulged himself and was drunk. A greater
contrast between the weak, gluttonous nature of man on Earth and of the piousness of ecclesiastical
action on the other there could not be. The message for Rolin is that much emphatic when you
consider that both stories revolved around wine, Rolin’s chief industry. Thus, considering that
“above the earthly donor, man is debased by wine; above Mary and Christ, wine serves as the
substance of man’s salvation,” the conclusion is evident that Rolin wished to emphasize that he
conducted his business with a mind to pious activity, and against the gluttonous sins of avarice and
usury. This emphasis of Rolin’s that he wished to unify and balance the secular with the
ecclesiastical world finds further evidence in the background presented in the picture. Behind Rolin,
we see the rolling green hillside of his vineyard holdings. Behind Mary, is the Augustinian ‘City of
God,’ represented by an innumerable population of churches, spires reaching high towards the
heavens. Between these two separate worlds, we find a connection in the form of a bridge. The
obvious And this bridge needed to be built by Rolin to ensure his place in the afterlife. And build
this bridge he did, through the commission of this work, uniting his perilous world with the pious
and perfect ecclesiastical one.

We can find this dialectic between the earthly and the heavenly, secular and ecclesiastical
more subtly expressed in the Canon’s Van Eyck commission, with use of the recognizable library
of Christian symbolism employed throughout the painting. Here, the iconography separates the
painting into two different conceptions of religious activity, that of the priestly and that of the
militant14 , and then unites this heavenly and earthly dichotomy existent within the wealthy Canon
Van der Paele through the common bond of the Virgin Mary and her Christ Child. Further, it also
reveals the relationship that the Canon Van der Paele shares with this common bond, and hence, his
place in ecclesiastical life.Through iconographical analysis, we find that, very ill and on his death
bed15 , the Canon commissioned the grand “Madonna with Canon Van der Paele” to appeal to the
compassionate Virgin and forgive him of his sins committed on earth. His symbolic recognition

Snyder, James. Northern Renaissance Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. 1985, 110.
Snyder, James. Northern Renaissance Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. 1985, 110.
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of the cycle of life and death speaks to this point, and demonstrates how, fearing reprisal in the
afterlife for the committing of Earthly sin, the Canon is trying to buy his way to forgiveness.

For the iconography of “Madonna with Canon van der Paele” divides the painting into left
and right, stressing the heavenly priestly and earthly militant aspects of religious activity. Standing
dominant on the Virgin’s right, for example, is Saint Donatian. His passive story of having been
cast into the Tiber for his religious beliefs, and the miraculous revitalization of his drowned corpse
through prayer, serve to show his unwavering religious faith and the Grace of God that goes with
him. This is further emphasized by the wheel of five candles that he is holding, which lit, cast a
divine radiance into the picture and further reveal his heavenly faith. Contrast this to the left-handed
character of St. George, who actively sought out and slew a dragon, an example of good triumphing
over evil on earth. The dichotomy between left and right, heavenly perfection and earthly fault, is
furthered emphasized through continued iconography: the pillar capital on the left showing
Abraham meeting with Melchizedek , while it’s right-sided counterpart shows Abraham slaying the
armies of the Chedorlaomer; the chair-arm figure of Adam on the left, while Eve and connotations
of her original sin are on the right; the struggle of corrupt Cain and sinless Abel on
the left, with the humanly imperfect Samson defeating the lion on the right.

Indeed, there is an evident separation of the priestly and the militant, of the perfection of
heaven and the fallacies of earth. If one focuses now on the iconography surrounding the Virgin, a
connection can be made between the divine on the left and the realm of man on the right. Positioned
centrally in the circular apse of a church, the Virgin reflects the role given to her by the Church in
the fifteenth century as the one predestined to bring about the redemption of man from the sin of
Eve, and to begin anew the cycle of birth, death and resurrection. In her state of unmarred
perfection, as a symbolic “rose without thorns”, she occupies both the realm of man and that of
heaven, and acts therefore as an intermediary between the two. With all iconographical elements of
the painting unified through the divine presence of the Virgin and her Christ Child, it is possible to
focus upon the Canon Van der Paele’s relationship (i.e. religious beliefs) to her, and examine how
he appeals to the unifying force of the Virgin and Christ Child. The fortitude and
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strength of the Canon’s faith, in his belief in deliverance, and in the cyclical fall and redemption of
man is revealed through iconography. His fortitude and strength represented in the struggle of
Samson with the lion and the allusion to the symbolic pillars that are present in the structure of the
church. His belief in deliverance is shown through the victories of good over evil by Saint George
or Abraham. His cyclical notions of birth, death, resurrection and redemption revealed through the
many references to the Passion of Christ, such as the thorn-eating Goldfinch clasped in the Christ
Child’s hand, or through the use of anemone flowers in the painting, which not only reference the
Passion of Christ but also illness. This double reference to redemption and illness is key, since
knowing that the Canon van der Paele himself was gravely ill at the time that he commissioned the
painting, we can directly link him to all other iconographical references through their extended
meanings and connection to divine and earthly, priestly and militant.

The conclusion that one draws then is evident. Van Eyck’s commissioned painting is clearly
reflective of the Canon van der Paele’s preparation for his own death, his desire to place himself
ecclesiastically and show the religious faith that he maintains. At the same time that the Canon is
down on his knees, looking directly at and appealing to the divine faith that the patron saint of
Bruges, Saint Donatian, personifies, and shouldered by the symbol of righteous action on earth,
Saint George, he is also kneeling in prayer before the transcendent entity that unites these two
worlds, the Virgin May and the Christ Child. Clothed in the white robes of innocence, purity and
piousness, and surrounded by iconography that denotes fortitude and strength, sin and redemption,
fall and deliverance, the Canon van der Paele makes a powerful statement of his awareness of his
ecclesiastical role, and his supplicance before the judgment of God.

In the analysis these two paintings in context of the socioeconomic realities of the fifteenth
century, a new understanding of the patronage of Canon Van der Paele and Chancellor Rolin has
been reached. The patronage of Chancellor Rolin and of Canon Van der Paele reveals itself as
something less than purely devotional: motivated by the need to balance their avaricious and
usurious economic secular activities with their ecclesiastical indoctrination, what emerges in the
narrative of Van Eyck is not purely devotional, but rather “devotional patronage”, the purchasing
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of the way to eternal sanctity and redemption through iconographical appeal to the Virgin for
forgiveness in heaven for the avaricious and usury sins committed on Earth through. This belief
finds expression in the criticism of Martin Luther, the social and economic factors of daily life in
the fifteenth century, and in the premeditated iconography and carefully considered arrangement
within the two images themselves. Both Chancellor Rolin and Canon Van der Paele needed to build
bridges, uniting the divided world that they lived in. In his commission, the shrewd Chancellor
constructed a literal bridge, spanning the gap between his grape fields and the fields of God on the
opposing bank. The Canon Van der Paele was somewhat more subtle, bridging the gap between his
secular and ecclesiastical activities through religious devotion and the providence of Saints.
Whatever the means, these two men felt the need to balance their secular pursuits with their
ecclesiastical well-being, and did so through their devotional patronage of Van Eyck, practically
expressing in the physical world the requirement of faith to leap the gap between the world of the
senses and the world of heaven, as “God speaks to the soul, not through the meditation of the
priesthood or of social institutions built up by man, but solus cum solo, as a voice in the heart and
in the heart alone. Thus the bridges between the worlds of spirit and of sense are broken, and the
soul...may enter into communion with its Maker.”16

Tawney, R.H. (1990). Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 105.