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A New Take on Northern Renaissance Art

Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden traveled to Cologne, Germany, to complete this triptych, known as the Columba Altarpiece. Image courtesy of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany.

Art historian Lynn Jacobs is fascinated by the late medieval art form of the triptych, a three-paneled painting typically used as an altarpiece. A previous book, Opening Doors, explored triptychs produced in the Netherlands (present-day Belgium and Holland), which include some of the most famous works of Northern Renaissance art. Her new project focuses on the interrelation between Netherlandish triptychs and triptychs in Germany, in part debunking the conventional wisdom that German triptychs were imitations of Netherlandish art without influence of their own.

Jacobs spent two weeks this summer in Cologne, Germany, where she focused on the cross-fertilization between Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden and subsequent triptych artists in both areas.

“I thought it would be interesting to start my research with this situation, where this Netherlandish artist is commissioned to make a triptych for a Cologne patron in the mid-15th century. What happens when this triptych comes into Cologne, and the Netherlandish tradition interacts with the Cologne tradition?

“One thing we see is that in Cologne prior to this time, the triptychs all had gold leaf backgrounds. You don’t really get a lot of recessed space. But the van der Weyden piece has all this landscape space, all this interior space, and a much more complicated perspective. It was extremely modern to have this sort of space. After this piece comes in, we see Cologne starting to have more of this modern background.

Painting of Mary presenting the infant Jesus in the temple.

The right panel of the Columba Altarpiece features a woman in green who appears to have been added after the artist traveled to Cologne. Image courtesy of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany.

“The most famous triptych in Cologne prior to this time was by a German painter named Stefan Lochner. In studying the relationship between Lochner’s and van der Weyden’s triptychs, people have noticed that certain figures by Lochner seem to have actually been picked up by van der Weyden. There’s a very similar woman in green in both paintings, and a similar guy with a turban in both.

“What’s really interesting is that the two figures taken from Lochner don’t appear until after van der Weyden had apparently made a trip to Cologne. Van der Weyden’s triptych, like most Netherlandish paintings, have what we call underdrawings, a drawing on the wood panel with graphite material to lay out the composition. Then the artist paints over it. The technology of infrared reflectography lets us read the underdrawings. It turns out that the figures that relate to Lochner’s triptych were different in the underdrawing than they were in the painted level.

“What it seems happened is that van der Weyden planned the triptych and designed it in his studio in Brussels, and then he went to Cologne, where he probably drew a portrait of the patron. When he got back to Brussels he painted over the underdrawing and added in the figure of the patron (who wasn’t in the underdrawing), and made changes to some of the other figures to reflect the influence of what he saw during his time in Cologne.

“Another thing is the central theme of van der Weyden’s work – the Adoration of the Magi. Cologne was famous for having relics of the three kings, so this was an extremely popular subject matter in Cologne. But it had never been the central panel for a Netherlandish artist before. The Cologne patron likely specified what the subject matter should be, which is fairly common. But then this subject matter becomes very common in Netherlandish art.

“It turns out that there’s a really interesting kind of exchange of artistic traditions between these two cities. As I’m looking more I’m thinking that there’s a lot closer connection than most people have thought. It’s this interesting way in which these two traditions seem to have come together. Not only does van der Weyden’s work influence the Cologne artists, but what van der Weyden takes from Cologne influences the Netherlandish artists.

Painting depicts the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary.

The left panel of the Columba Alterpiece. Image courtesy of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany.

“Van der Weyden’s commissioned piece is one of the first Netherlandish triptychs that does something you think would be very obvious: Each panel shows a different scene. Previously in Netherlandish art, there’s just a central scene and then saints in the wings, or maybe two scenes. This is the first time we see three scenes right across. I think that was something van der Weyden developed because Cologne had a lot of interest in more complicated narrative scenes. Van der Weyden wasn’t previously so interested in complex narrative because he wanted the spatial integrity of an open composition. But the Cologne patron probably specified that the painting should have three different scenes. After this, it became fairly common in Netherlandish triptychs to have three different scenes.”

 

Richly colored painting of Mary and Jesus and three kings

The center panel of the Columba Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden depicts the Adoration of the Magi, a popular theme in Cologne. Image courtesy of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany.

About The Author

Bettina Lehovec writes about arts, humanities, architecture and design, among other topics. An award-winning journalist, she focuses on the people stories behind the news.

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