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Rogier van der Weyden, Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin

Rogier van der Weyden, Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, c. 1435–40, oil and tempera on panel, 137.5 x 110.8 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) A conversation with Dr. Christopher Atkins, Van Otterloo-Weatherbie Director of the Center for Netherlandish Art and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Beth] We're here in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and we're looking at a really important painting by Rogier van der Weyden, St. Luke Drawing the Virgin by tradition, Saint Luke. One of the authors of the gospels was a painter and by tradition, he had the opportunity to paint Mary and Christ. - [Christopher] Saint Luke was also the patron saint of painters. - [Beth] And so when you have guilds of artists that emerge in Europe, those guilds often adopt Saint Luke as their patron saint. Mary is seated in front of this cloth of honor, on pillows, on a throne. - [Christopher] And so it's quite interesting for Saint Luke to be in such proximity to the enthroned Virgin and the Christ child. - [Beth] He's actually in the same space. - [Christopher] Which of course is required if you're making a drawing, in this case, from life. And that's exactly what he's doing here. - [Beth] But the space itself does seem church-like. - [Christopher] We've got the decorative floor, the cloth of honor, individual elements of decoration related to Christian narratives. And so that's a very intentional choice of making the Virgin exist within a religious space viewers would understand to be a church. - [Beth] In a church that could be in Flanders in the 15th century. We can look out of this space and see what looks to be a Flemish city. - [Christopher] The viewer in the 15th century certainly would have understood that Saint Luke, the Virgin and Christ did not exist in their own time. But when they look out through the cityscape in the background, the clothing of the individuals, all of those pieces, they would have understood as being illustrative of the time in which they found themselves. So there's the play between the ancient and the contemporary. - [Beth] So this idea of making this real and palpable for a 15th century viewer, not only is every detail painted so realistically, but by setting this in Flanders in the 15th century, making this seem spiritually close. So we have Saint Luke drawing very much the way an artist would start to work in the 15th century. - [Christopher] Making a drawing in silver point and based on observation, we can see what the drawing looks like. We can see the head on the sheet of paper, and that appears not as one had seen in an icon image of the previous centuries, but it's a naturalistic depiction of what one would look like if you're drawing somebody who's seated before you. - [Beth] Painting what one sees in a way that looks so real and convincing was a new thing in the 15th century. - [Christopher] This is a new and current thing. And we see it everywhere in terms of the details from everyday life but also if we look at volumes of folds of garments, we see them as three-dimensional objects. That attention to detail and precision in elements like the trim of the garment or the flowers in the garden, all of those exquisitely executed, but derived from observation of the natural world. - [Beth] And then also are the gold embroidery, reflects the light, this interest in the way that light plays on objects. - [Christopher] It shimmers. You get the highlights, you get shadows based on the effects of things that happen in reality, which artists like Rogier van der Weyden, were paying attention to in a new way. - [Beth] Our eye's drawn to this amazing landscape, this deep recession into space where we see roads and streets and figures and houses. - [Christopher] As much as we've talked about observation, if we look closely at Saint Luke's face and his eyes, he doesn't seem to be looking at the subject before him. He's looking above her head, which works with that idea of imagination. Is he actually seeing the Virgin and the Christ now, before him, or is he having a vision calling upon what's going on inside his mind? And that's what's leading him to his artistic creation. - [Beth] It has been argued that one of the functions of paintings in the 15th century is helping us to imagine these spiritual figures to make them real in our minds as an aid in prayer and religious meditation. - [Christopher] There's a strong possibility that's Rogier van der Weyden used himself as the model for Saint Luke. - [Beth] So the decision to make this a self portrait, to put oneself in this lineage of Saint Luke, this long tradition of painters and the importance of painting religious figures. - [Christopher] There's a tremendous self-awareness on Rogier van der Weyden's part here, of his role as an artist and as an accomplished artist. And he's exploring that as subtext. The primary message is about the religious subject, but as an artist, he is also an intercessor, an intermediary for viewers and to position himself as the patron of painters, reveals a self-consciousness about what it is to make art and conveys an awareness of artistic tradition and an awareness on Rogier van der Weyden's part of his own role within that tradition. (piano music)