In New ‘Short Talks,’ Lynn Jacobs Discusses 15th-Century German Triptychs
Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast from the University of Arkansas, highlights research and scholarly work across campus. Each segment features a university researcher discussing his or her work.
Bettina Lehovec: Hello welcome to Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast from the University of Arkansas. I’m Bettina Lehovec, talking with art historian Lynn Jacobs about her recent research on German triptychs. Lynn is a Distinguished Professor in the School of Art and the author of several books, including Opening Doors, the Early Netherlandish Triptych Reinterpreted. Thanks for joining us, Lynn.
Lynn Jacobs: Thanks so much for having me.
BL: So tell us a little bit about triptychs.
LJ: So triptychs are paintings that have three panels, and these panels are hinged together so they can fold up and they can open out and this type of structure for paintings was very popular in the region of the Netherlands, present day Belgium and Holland in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and also in a lot of other countries in Northern Europe and also, Germany.
So I started working quite a while ago on this project studying the triptych format in the Netherlands, primarily in Belgium and my book opening doors was a kind of reinterpretation of the Netherlandish triptych, and I started to realize that no one had really looked at the triptychs format much in Germany. And German triptychs had really been seen a very derivative of Netherlandish triptychs, just not worth studying, because they’re just kind of copying and maybe not even as good.
But I wanted to start with Cologne, which is right on the border with Belgium. Because it was a very interesting situation that occurred right in the middle of the fifteenth century, where a triptych by a very famous Netherlandish painter named Roger Vanderbyden was imported into Cologne and was put up in a very prominent position in Cologne. And so all of a sudden in Cologne, you have a major Netherlandish tryptic in situ. And what I wanted to look at is the reciprocal influences. I wanted to look at how Roger was impacted by the fact that he was producing a work for a Cologne patron. What I’m also interested in is the issue of competition, between what Roger Vanderbyden was doing and what the most famous triptych in Cologne, there were Cologne artists in town was before Roger’s work came. And so the most famous triptych that was in Cologne at the time that Roger Vanderbyden’s triptych arrived was a triptych showing the adoration of the Magi by Stephan Lochner, who was the only real named artist we know from Cologne in the mid fifteenth century. And this was a very large triptych in a chapel that was used by the town council so it was kind of a government chapel. It was very large. And I think to some degree the patron of the chapel at the church of St. Columba kind of wanted his triptych to rival the Stefan Lochner triptych in size. And then I suspect that the patron also specified the subject matter. And Roger Vanderbyden’s triptych shows the adoration of the Magi in the center, which is the same subject matter as Stefan Lockner’s triptych. And it’s a very important theme in Cologne, because Cologne happened to own some very important relics of the Magi. And they had them in a reliquary in the cathedral and it was a huge pilgrimage site. So the subject matter, the adoration of the Magi, had never been the central panel of a triptych in the Netherlands. So the fact that Roger Vanderbyden makes this first triptych with the adoration of the Magi in the center is a clear reference to the taste of Cologne and maybe even to the desire of the patron to rival Stefan Lochner’s triptych.
So we know that around mid-century, Roger Vanderbyden, in 1450, a Jubilee year, he actually traveled from the Netherlands to Rome and we suspect that he stopped in Cologne, either on the way there or on the way back. But we think the Roger Vanderbyden may have gotten the commission for this triptych before the trip, and started having the work done on his triptych before he actually went to Cologne. The first real process where the artist is getting involved in the design, the imagery, is to do what we call “underdrawing.” So what the Netherlandish artists normally did was they would put drawings on the panel, full scale drawings, in a graphite material with the basic compositional elements, all the main scenes, and Roger Vanderbyden tended to do pretty detailed underdrawings for his work. And then after that they would apply the paint layer. Nowadays, we’re very lucky and we have a scientific technique called infrared reflectography where we can shoot infrared light through the painting, or maybe it reflects through, I’m not really a scientist. But what I know is that through the use of this technique we can actually see the underdrawings that lie below the surface of the paint level. And what people have realized is that there are a number of figures that are in Stephan Lochner’s triptych in Cologne that Roger Vanderbyden seems to have copied. Some of the figures have a similar dress, they have a similar position, they have a similar color, and what we’ve learned from studying the underdrawings is that the figures, pretty much most of the borrowings from Stephan Lochner, are not present in the underdrawing layer, but actually reflect changes between the underdrawings and the paint layer. That’s not at all uncommon, there’s very often changes, but what seems to have happened is that Roger Vanderbyden possibly had a shop do the underdrawings while he was sort of on his trip, after he’d gotten in contact and after he spent time in Cologne, he came back and painted in, first of all the donor, the portrait of the donor, which was not present in the underdrawing, and presumably, he hadn’t seen the donor yet, and also made some changes in the figures to copy in certain ways elements of Stephen Lochner’s work.
I think that Roger may have really gotten into this competition with Stephan Lochner, and tried to show, to kind of relate his work to Stephan Lochner, but also then to show that he had the edge in certain other aspects.
One of the big things that he had the edge in is that he had very realistic settings for his scenes. He was very accomplished in perspective and showing realistic landscape space and showing realistic interior space. Whereas Stephan Lochner, following Cologne traditions, for the most part his works had gold leaf backgrounds. In Cologne, they were used to seeing the background pretty much all gold leaf. Now this was a pretty cool thing. They liked this because it was very rich, it showed they had a lot of money. They demonstrated the wealth of the person paying for it. But Roger Vanderbyden starts to say bring in to Cologne the sort of skill of the artist, that’s even cooler than showing that material wealth. So he brings in this incredible sense of realistic space, which had not really been seen in Cologne prior to this time. And that was a kind of a new astonishing new development that the Cologne painters after Roger Vanderbyden start to see that coming into their work.
BL: So it sounds like the influence went both ways?
LJ: Yeah, the influence went both ways and that’s one of the things I’m really trying to emphasize in my work because previously it had really been seen only in one direction: from the Netherlands to Germany, and that’s certainly true, but I think there’s a reciprocal influence and I think probably the fact that Roger Vanderbyden’s work in some ways is adapted to some of the Cologne taste is one of the reasons why it then became so important in Cologne. It didn’t come in as a completely foreign kind of thing. It had some new things, but it was also in a language that the Cologne artists would understand, and so then it was more accessible for them to adapt.
BL: For listeners who might want to see a visual, we have some images of Roger Vanderbyden’s Columba altarpiece on our website at researchfrontiers.uark.edu, look under Field Notes for the August 30th article.
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