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Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop

A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris in front of Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449, oil on oak panel, 100.1 x 85.8 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Steven] We're in one of the quietest parts of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is the Lehman Collection, reconstructed to look like the interior of his apartment, with walls of silk and furniture and some real treasures, including a painting that we're standing in front of, Petrus Christus's "A Goldsmith in his Shop". - [Beth] When you walk into this room, what you see mostly are religious paintings. And with this painting, we're looking at something that is secular, although for a long time, we thought it had a religious meaning. - [Steven] It was only a few years ago that a halo was removed from the man seated. That halo was not original but had thrown art historians for some time. - [Beth] The other thing that we see in this room are portraits. And in fact, now that this halo has been removed, we can see this painting much more in the light of a portrait than a religious painting. - [Steven] But this is one complicated portrait because it includes five figures and lots and lots of stuff. - [Beth] So for a long time, that man in red was thought to be the patron saint of goldsmiths, a saint who is especially associated with the city of Bruges, which is where Petrus Christus painted and an incredibly wealthy city, part of the territories ruled by Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy. He was one of the wealthiest men in Europe. - [Steven] We're looking in a jeweler's stall, a small shop that would have opened up onto the street, and if you look carefully and you can see a convex mirror that's reflecting the street beyond us. That is literally what is behind us as we look at this painting. - [Beth] It extends the space of the painting so that we join these two figures who are looking into the goldsmith's stall. - [Steven] But there are already two customers in that store. - [Beth] And one of them, the female figure, seems to be gesturing toward the goldsmith, who holds in his hand a balance in which we see a ring, and in his right hand, he's holding some weights as if to balance, to weigh, the amount of gold in the ring. - [Steven] And that balance is so delicately held and painted. There's a long history of representing a balance, the weighing, in the history of art, but generally, it's St. Michael at the end of time weighing the goodness or evil of souls to decide who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. - [Beth] Standing next to the scales is a container for the weights and money, gold and silver. Behind the goldsmith, we see not only wares that he's fashioned that are available, perhaps for sale or to demonstrate the kinds of things he can make, but we also see the raw goods of his trade. - [Steven] I can make out coral, pearls, both seed pearls and larger pearls, what looks like amber. There are fossilized shark teeth. There's clear crystal and there's porphyry. All of these exquisite and expensive materials. - [Beth] And the wealth here is signified, in addition, by the textiles worn by the couple, - [Steven] especially the woman. She wears this sumptuous outfit that is richly appointed. There's so much gold in it. Clearly, this is not a common woman. - [Beth] If we look at the two figures in the back, their faces seem much more generalized than the figure in the foreground, and when conservators have examined the painting, they've noted that there is a lot more attention paid to the underdrawing of the seated goldsmith than of the couple in the back. So it's likely that the figure in the front is a portrait. Now, art historians think that the female figure represents the grandniece of Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, who just at this time had arranged a marriage for her with the king of Scotland. So she's about to become the queen of Scotland and Philip the Good, the Duke, sent her off with incredible treasures for her marriage, gold, silver, the most luxurious fabrics. He spent a fortune, and one of the things he did was give her gold and silver objects commissioned from some goldsmiths in Bruges. - [Steven] And so, now we're in the realm of conjecture, but we think that this painting might have been commissioned by the goldsmith himself, that is, that this was something that he could have hung up in his guildhall or perhaps even in his shop to show off the fact that he had been patronized by Philip the Good, but it's important to note that the woman is not a portrait of Philip the Good's grandniece. That would have been presumptuous to include her in this kind of painting. - [Beth] We're not sure who is the male figure as we're not sure which goldsmith this is. There were several who furnished items for Philip the Good for his grandniece. The idea is, I'm a talented and sought-after goldsmith, and I have royal patrons. There's possibly another reading here that art historians like to offer, and that is one much more in line with the traditions of the Northern Renaissance, where we tend to see objects from everyday life that also have a religious interpretation, much like the scales we talked about. - [Steven] In the mirror, outside we can see two young men, well-dressed, with a falcon, which is sometimes read as a symbol of pride and greed. And so, there's this contrast that's being constructed between the outside world, the world where things are less perfect, whereas inside, you have this notion of harmony and balance. The other object on the counter in front of us is a belt, and some art historians read that as also associated with matrimony, with the wedding. - [Beth] But look at what Petrus Christus can do. He has spent so much effort creating an incredible illusion of reality, the way that sash hangs over this tabletop where we can see the grain of the wood, the way that light glistens on the metal surfaces here, like that gold around the convex mirror, these precise shadows that are cast. Everything is painted with such detail that you get the sense that it was important to the artist and the patron that all of these objects be represented as realistically as possible. - [Steven] There's an interesting relationship in the North between the representation of jewels and divinity. In so many paintings by Jan van Eyck, for example, God is shown encrusted with jewels. And so, here in this more secular context, it's important to remember that lavish jewelry could be a means with which to represent the divine. - [Beth] We know that some of the objects are destined for the church. For example, we see a crystal container, sitting on top of that a pelican, which is a symbol of God's sacrifice for mankind. This is a container that likely would have held the wafers, the bread, that became the body of Christ during the sacrament of the Eucharist during mass. Look at how carefully Christus has painted the reflections on those objects or the wooden shutters that have opened in the window, a kind of attention to everyday facts. That's an important part of Renaissance art. - [Steven] And all of this specificity, all of this extraordinarily rich color and texture is a result of the innovation of oil paint, which Flemish artists had mastered in the 15th century and which we see here brilliantly worked. This is oil paint that allows for the distinction of the stitches of gold in the woman's dress, as opposed to the clarity of the mirror or the cracks that we can see in the mirror. It allows for the softness of the velvets versus the slippery, hard quality of the coral. It is literally oil that makes this painting possible. (gentle music)