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Jan van Eyck, The Madonna in the Church

Jan van Eyck, The Madonna in the Church, c. 1438, oil on oak, 31 x 14 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin). In the Google Art Project: http://www.googleartproject.com/collection/gemaldegalerie/artwork/the-madonna-in-the-church-jan-van-eyck/330338/. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Steven: There is this marvelous way that Jan van Eyck can create a sense of the real even when he's representing the impossible. Beth: Mary is impossibly large within this exceptionally beautiful and perhaps impossibly beautiful Gothic church. She fills this space, and is shown here as the Queen of Heaven, with a crown on her head, studded with jewels, and a gown embroidered with gold. We know what we have before us is a vision. A vision of Mary in a church not unlike the one that people would go to in the fifteenth century, which must have made this a very real vision. Steven: If we look to the far back, we can see this beautiful tracery, and within that wooden carving, we can actually see stories of the life of the Virgin Mary. Through the doorway we can also see two angels that seem to be singing from a hymnbook, and if we look just over Mary's left shoulder, we can see a sculpture that shows the Virgin Mary holding her son just as the Virgin Mary before us holds Christ. Beth: It's as though that sculpture in the niche behind Mary has come alive and is flesh and blood before us, and what makes this all so much more believable is what van Eyck is able to do with light. We see it flooding in the Gothic windows, and two pools of sunlight on the floor in front of Mary. We know that we're looking toward the east end of the church; therefore the light that we see reflected on the floor is coming from the windows on the north, and those spots of light would be impossible in that case, so the light must be mystical; supernatural. Steven: This painting is about the way that light passes through the great windows of a Gothic cathedral into its sacred interior space, because that functioned, in the medieval mind, as an important symbol of Mary's chastity; of her virginity. This is an ideal church. This architecture doesn't exist in the world, but is Jan van Eyck's fantasy of the perfect interior for Mary, to enthrone Mary. This is a way of representing the heavenly sphere in an environment that we can recognize. This painting was stolen in 1877, and although the panel itself was recovered, its frame was not. The frame, however, had an inscription, which was recorded, and it read as follows. "As the sunbeam through the glass passes but not stains, "so the Virgin as she was, a virgin still remains." (piano music)