Vision & Material: Interaction between Art and Science in Jan van Eyck’s Time
The achievements of Jan Van Eyck coincides with Leon Battista Alberti’s writing of De Pictura (On Painting), a turning point in the history of art. The treatise applies the late medieval science of vision (optics) which Jan van Eyck equally appears acquainted with, but which he pursues in another direction than Alberti. This book contains papers dedicated to the interaction between Art and Science in Jan van Eyck’s Time. It is based on the conference, organized the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium in Brussels.
An analysis of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck shows that the depicted figures are arranged according to the dualism of earthly versus heavenly space. Two kinds of perspective are presented here: that of an external observer (this perspective virtually corresponds to the point of view of a spectator who is watching the Altarpiece) and that of an internal observer imagined to be within the depicted world (i.e. the Divine perspective). The external perspective is used to represent the earthly space, whereas the internal perspective serves for the representation of the heavenly space. This contraposition of the two opposite points of view is specifically revealed on the opened altar panels in the right-left orientation. In the foreground the more valuable figures are placed on the right while in the middleground the more valuable is placed on the left (from the point of view of a spectator of the Altarpiece). It is argued that in both cases the right side has the priority (is semiotically marked as more important); however in the foreground the organisation of figures is correlated with our point of view (that of the external observer who is outside the depicted world) while in the middleground the figures are arranged according to the point of view of an internal observer. The former principle is typical for Renaissance art and the latter one is characteristic for Medieval art, especially for icon-painting. Incidentally it is very clear in the terminology of icon-painters: the righthand part of the icon was thought as the left (and it was called "left") and, conversely, the left part of the painting was considered to be the right part (and accordingly it was called "right"). In other words the reckoning was not from our point of view but from the point of view of our implicit vis-a-vis. Famous as a protoganist of the Renaissance art, van Eyck actually uses both principles, the Renaissance and the Medieval one: the Renaissance principle is used for representation of the earthly space, the traditional Medieval principle serves for representation of the heavenly space. Indeed the central part of the opened Atarpiece is organized like an icon.
The panels on the closed altar illustrate the dualism between earth and heaven in a different way. In the earthly space, heavenly figures take the form of statues and pictures, whereas in the heavenly space they are alive. At the same time the figures of Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin stylistically correspond to the statues of saints: the same colours are used and their garment is presented as a sculptural relief. The dialogue between the Archangel and the Virgin confirms this complementarity of perspectives: Gabriel’s words address earth and are thus to be read from below; Mary’s words address heaven and their letters therefore appear upside-down to the human observer. The paper concludes with the hypothesis that the opposition between the earthly and the heavenly is not only a principle of composition of the Ghent Altarpiece but also its central theme.