Jan van Eyck: Get to Know the Northern Renaissance Master

Jan van Eyck is considered one of the most important masters of the Northern Renaissance. His realism, attention to detail, and intricate symbolism are still celebrated as marks of art.

Jul 19, 2023By Anisia Iacob, MA Art History, MA in Philosophy

jan van eyck


The Northern Renaissance master’s career began formally at the court of Philip the Good in 1425. During his time at the court, he was appointed as a painter and worked on several portraits and religious paintings for his patrons. What set Jan van Eyck apart from his fellow contemporary painters was his attention to detail, his love of symbolism and riddles, but also his color mastery that enabled a sense of realism in his paintings.


Jan van Eyck’s influence was far-reaching, as attested by the popularity of his paintings in the Northern part of Europe. His works were sought by people from England, Netherlands, Belgium, and France, as his technique was universally appreciated and imitated by artists that came after him.


Jan van Eyck’s Life

Portrait of a Man (possibly a self-portrait) by Jan van Eyck, 1433, via The National Gallery, London


Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) was a Flemish painter who most art historians see as one of the key figures of the Northern Renaissance. He is believed to have been born in Maaseik around 1390, a town in modern-day Belgium that was part of the Prince-Bishopric of Liège in the Holy Roman Empire. It is believed that van Eyck was the son of a heraldic painter and was introduced to the craft by his father. However, no solid evidence gives any clear information on his parents.


It is presumed that Van Eyck had a brother, Hubert (c. 1385 – 1426), although whether he was an older or younger sibling is also disputed. Some art historians tend to believe that Jan was trained in his brother’s workshop, as it is believed that both of them worked on the Ghent Altarpiece. Moreover, some view Hubert as one of the early Netherlandish and Flemish pioneers in the development of the oil technique, together with his brother Jan.

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There isn’t much information on the painter’s life either. We know from surviving documents that he was married to a certain Margaret with whom he had two children, a son named Philippot (probably named so in honor of his patron, Philip the Good) and a daughter named Lyevine. Documents also attest that his daughter was granted permission to retreat to a monastery in Maaseik, thus further strengthening the hypothesis of the painter originating from there. Aside from this, he is known to have traveled in his capacity as a court painter, and some historians even believed that he played diplomatic roles for his patrons during his travels.


The Clients & Patrons of Jan van Eyck 

The Adoration of the Magi by Jan van Eyck, c. 1430-1440, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


During his lifetime, Jan van Eyck worked for a variety of clients, such as members of the Burgundian court, wealthy merchants, and religious institutions. One of his most famous works, the Ghent Altarpiece, was commissioned by the wealthy Flemish nobleman Joos Vijd and his wife, who were eager to contribute and show their faith through this painting. Van Eyck also painted portraits of various figures of noble and royal descent, including Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and Isabella of Portugal. His religious paintings also feature angels and saints, masterly painted with visual characteristics that set them apart. Some angels have distinctive facial expressions while singing, as opposed to their usual serene look, and some saints stand out through their realism, oftentimes expressed via their faces.


Van Eyck’s biggest patron was Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Jan van Eyck was in the Duke’s service as court painter from circa 1425 up until his death in 1441. Documents show that after the painter’s death, Philip the Good continued supporting his widow, helping out his two children. Other patrons from the noble circles of Burgundy include Philip’s son, Charles the Bold, but also Isabella of Portugal who married Philip’s other son, John the Fearless. Beyond Burgundy, van Eyck painted for King Alfonso V of Portugal and the wealthy and famous merchant Giovanni Arnolfini. From this quick overview, it can be noticed that his patrons were influential European figures, attesting to his popularity and appreciation as an artist during his lifetime.


Jan van Eyck’s Painting Style

The Crucifixion; The Last Judgement by Jan van Eyck, ca. 1440, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Jan van Eyck as an artist stood out among his contemporaries due to his skill in rendering details, creating a realistic representation of the people portrayed. During the Northern Renaissance, the oil painting technique wasn’t the most popular choice for artist. However, a number of artists started experimenting with the oil technique, among them Jan van Eyck. Another interesting aspect of his work is the prominent use of glazing, which allowed him to build multiple layers with a shimmer quality to them. By doing so, he managed to create more depth into his paintings, but also acquire a more vibrant look, color-wise. Besides the technical aspect, van Eyck stood out also through his love for symbolism, which was included in most of his paintings in different forms.


All of his painted works respect the standard preference of the time in Northern Europe, namely a choice for panel. His commissions usually feature oak wood as the prime material of the panel, which is then painted over with oil painting. Panel was a sturdy material choice for an artwork that also allowed the artist to make full use of the colors’ vibrancy, but also the wood’s ability to support multiple layers of paint. This matched perfectly with Jan van Eyck’s glazing that involved the application of multiple thin and translucent layers of colors to create depth, dimension, but also light and shadows in a realistic manner.


The Famous Arnolfini Portrait 

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife by Jan van Eyck, 1434, via The National Gallery, London


The preferred subjects of Jan van Eyck were the portrait and the religious paintings. Religion was an integral and important aspect of the life of any sixteenth-century European. Naturally, it comes as no surprise that van Eyck illustrates this splendidly through his paintings that feature a religious component, often with some moral value, in most paintings. The famous Arnolfini Portrait is no exception to this rule. Although obviously a portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini, a wealthy Italian merchant, with his wife together as newlyweds, the symbolistic elements featured throughout the painting make a clear connection with the religious aspect.


The portrait was completed in 1434 and features a man and a woman in lavish dress, holding hands while in a bedroom. The painting is quite big in size and stands out for its beautiful and vibrant colors, especially the woman’s dress, but also the rich variety of objects depicted. Van Eyck paid a lot of attention to the details of the couple, but also to the objects around them, offering to the viewer the feeling of a complete sixteenth-century interior. The realism is enforced by the play of light and shadow, which allows the viewer to feel as if they are part of the scene, acting as a bystander. The interpretation of the painting is divided among historians, with some suggesting it is a celebration of marriage and others a moralizing lesson.


The Symbols Behind van Dyck’s Famous Portrait

Detail of Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife by Jan van Eyck, 1434, via The National Gallery, London


As previously mentioned, the portrait contains a number of symbols throughout the painting which can be interpreted to make up a message for the viewer to see. Probably the most discussed detail is that of the convex mirror. For starters, the reflection from the mirror is believed to be that of the painter himself, serving thus as a self-portrait. Then, the frame features illustrations of the passions of Christ, serving as a reminder towards piety, but also a cautionary tale against vanity. Another elements with possible symbolic meaning is the dog placed at the feet of the couple. Throughout the Middle Ages, dogs placed at the feet of people in artistic representations were seen as a symbol for loyalty. This being a portrait of a married couple, loyalty is an important factor to their relationship.


Two other notable symbols are the woman’s green dress, which some historians correlate with fertility and abundance. The chandelier with a single candle is also an odd addition but is interpreted as a symbol of God and his ability to watch over the couple’s every move. Additionally, the furniture and carpet of the room are indicative of the couple’s wealth. Therefore, a seemingly simple portrait is able to convey through its symbols a variety of information on its sitters.


The Ghent Altarpiece

The Lamb of God, from the Ghent altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, 1432, via Saint Bavo’s Cathedral collection, Ghent


The Ghent Altarpiece is also known under the title Adoration of the Mystic Lamb and is seen as one of the master pieces of Jan van Eyck. Unlike the artist’s other paintings, it is believed that his brother Hubert also worked on this painting, making it a collaboration between the brothers. Although the exact circumstances of the two brothers working on it are unclear, it is possible that Jan took over this painting after Hubert’s death in order to fulfill the commission. This altar piece is quite impressive through its sheer size, with 12 panels that can be opened or closed, all of them featuring scenes from the Bible or the life of various saints. The altar was finished by 1432 and is now housed in the St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. The work is appreciated due to its multitude of details and unconventional ways of dealing with already classic subjects.


The most impressive panel, the central one, shows a lamb in the center of the scene. High on an altar-like structure, the lamb is surrounded by many saints and clerics who kneel and bow in front of it. The panels from the sides of this central one relate to this scene and show even more figures that are on their way towards the adoration. The upper row of panels shows and enthroned Jesus flanked by Virgin Mary and Saint John. On their sides, two choirs of angels are in the middle of singing. A notable and unconventional detail here is the faces the angels make while singing. Van Eyck tried to emulate different facial expressions, meaning that some are shown with focused and contorted faces as they sing. Regardless, the painting is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of early Netherlandish art.


The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin

The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin by Jan van Eyck, 1435, via RKD


The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin is a famous oil painting by Jan van Eyck, completed around 1435. It depicts the Madonna and Child with the chancellor Nicolas Rolin kneeling at their feet in prayer. As in other van Eyck paintings, this one is also rich in details and symbols, but its most notable feature is the more extensive use of perspective. Another interesting aspect is that Mary is portrayed in a queen-like manner, being crowned by an angel with her mantle resembling one worn by royalty. She is not depicted as merely the mother of the King of Heaven, but as a queen in her own right.


The use of perspective to create depth and space is surely the forte of this painting, but also an emblem of Jan van Eyck’s skill. The tiles from the floor aid the viewer’s eye to travel towards the background where a landscape is visible through an arched window. This landscape can also be interpreted as being filled with symbolism, with the river representing the River of Life and the town symbolizing the city of God, indicating the hope of life after death. Jan van Eyck’s attention to detail is manifested in the careful rendition of the figures’ facial characteristics, their clothes and behavior, all contributing to the realism of the painting. All of these characteristics are another illustration of the painter’s style that influenced the art of the Northern Renaissance.


Jan van Eyck’s Legacy 

Portrait of a Gentleman, Anonymous after Jan van Eyck, 1852, via the British Museum, London


Jan van Eyck’s influence on art through the centuries has been significant. He is considered one of the most important and innovative artists of the Northern Renaissance, and his work had a profound impact on the development of painting in Europe. Van Eyck’s attention to detail, use of perspective, and mastery of light and shadow were also highly influential. His realistic representations of people and objects helped to establish a new standard for painting, and his innovative techniques were widely copied by other artists.


Besides the technical aspect of having popularized oil painting, van Eyck influenced later art by creating recognizable visual icons. The Arnolfini portrait, as well as his men with colored turbans, quickly became part of our universal visual culture and were copied and interpreted in various ways and mediums. His works became classics that were and still are cited visually but also interpreted by different generations of artists. He played a role in the visual production of many art masters such as Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein, Diego Velázquez, and the Baroque style, essentially making him the godfather of famous artworks and styles that we know and love.


Overall, Jan van Eyck’s contribution to the development of painting and art is immeasurable. He is considered a master of his craft and his work has inspired generations of artists to come.

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By Anisia IacobMA Art History, MA in PhilosophyAnisia Iacob holds an MA in both Art History and Philosophy at Leiden University. She holds a BA in Art History where she focused on 17th century Dutch vanitas painting and a BA in Philosophy where she researched fashion and embodied cognition. With a keen interest in anything and everything, her research interest goes from history to neuroscience, attesting to her curious personality. Besides studies, she works as a contributing writer. Anisia looks forward to finishing her two MAs and starting a PhD in Philosophy.