Rogier van der Weyden: 10 Things to Know About the Master of Passions

Rogier van der Weyden was a master painter of the Northern Renaissance. The “Master of Passions,” his ability to capture emotion gained international eminence paralleled only by Jan van Eyck.

Nov 18, 2020By Jordan Cook, MA Medieval Studies, BA (Hons) English Literature
rogier van der weyden
Details from The Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden, before 1433, via Museo del Prado, Madrid


Rogier van der Weyden (born 1399/1400 – died June 1464), also known as Rogier de la Pasture in French, was an Early Netherlandish artist active in fifteenth-century Belgium. Specializing in oil painting on wooden panels, he was a highly celebrated painter throughout Northern Europe whose artistic talents matched his contemporary Jan van Eyck. He reached international renown during his lifetime, was described as “great and famous” by a Spanish writer in 1445, and “an excellent and illustrious painter” by an Italian writer five years later. Read on to discover more about one of the greatest oil painters the world has ever known.


1. Rogier Van Der Weyden Began His Career As An Apprentice To Robert Campin

rogier van der weyden robert campin
Merode Triptych by Robert Campin, ca. 1427–32, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; with The Magdalene Reading by Rogier van der Weyden, before 1438, via The National Gallery, London 


In 1427, Rogier van der Weyden enrolled as an apprentice in the workshop of eminent Tournai painter, Robert Campin (sometimes referred to as the Master of Flémalle). For reasons unknown, Rogier began his apprenticeship at the rather mature age of 27 – this is irregular as artists would usually begin their training during adolescence.


Nevertheless, he remained an apprentice to Campin for five years before becoming an official master of the painter’s guild in his own right in 1432. Robert Campin is considered one of the founders of Early Netherlandish painting’s staple naturalistic style and was undoubtedly a major influence on Rogier van der Weyden’s independent work.


2. Only Three Paintings Can be Officially Attributed To Rogier

the crucifixion rogier van der weyden
The Crucifixion (Escorial) by Rogier van der Weyden, ca. 1455, via San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid 


Unlike Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden did not sign his work – in fact, the majority of Northern Renaissance artists remain nameless, referred to now as “Master of [insert artwork here].” Indeed, due to the anonymity of artists during the late medieval and Renaissance periods, and the accepted and widespread practice of copying, the retrospective attribution of paintings to specific artists is extremely difficult. Not to mention the fact that master artists such as Rogier would have worked with apprentices who, in turn, collaborated on their master’s commissions. Consequently, upon close inspection, a single piece of art can be exhibit distinctly different hands. 

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While there are several panels that we assume to be painted by Rogier, only three have been authenticated as such. The only three (surviving) paintings that can be confidently attributed to Rogier van der Weyden himself are: the Miraflores Triptych, the Descent from the Cross and the Escorial Crucifixion.


3. He Was Court Painter To Dukes, Princes, And Kings

miraflores triptych rogier van der weyden
Miraflores Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden, ca. 1440-45, via the Staatlichen Museen (Gemäldegalerie), Berlin


Rogier van der Weyden was a highly esteemed artist in his time and, as such, he produced works for distinguished members of the nobility, even royalty. We know that he painted a portrait of Philip the Good through a multitude of copies – however, the original is lost. Philip the Good was Duke of Burgundy between 1419 and 1467 (the year he died) and appointed Rogier van der Weyden the honorable position of court painter.


Rogier’s distinguished patrons not only hailed from the Low Countries but further afield too. For example, his Miraflores Triptych, mentioned above, was commissioned by John II, King of Castile. Upon its completion in 1445, the King then donated the triptych to the Miraflores Charterhouse (a Carthusian monastery near Burgos in Spain), where his tomb remains today.


4. He Was Appointed The Official Painter Of The City Of Brussels

detail from saint luke drawing the virgin
Detail from Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin by Rogier van der Weyden, ca. 1435-40, via Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


After his promotion to master painter, Rogier van der Weyden left Tournai and by 1435 was living in Brussels with his wife, Elizabeth, whom he had married in 1426. In 1436, he was appointed the official painter for the City of Brussels. This would have been a position of great honor with associated status and salary.


In Brussels, Rogier would have been in charge of his own workshop but, according to Brussels Guild standards, he was likely only allowed to train one apprentice at any time. It is thought that Hans Memling might have served as an apprentice in Rogier’s Brussels-based workshop before pursuing his independent career in Bruges from 1465.


5. Rogier Van Der Weyden’s Most Famous Artwork Foes Not Survive

herkinbald justice of trajan
The Justice of Trajan and Herkinbald, tapestry based on a painting by Rogier van der Weyden, currently in Historical Museum of Bern


The artwork that garnered the most fame during Rogier’s lifetime was probably his four Scenes of Justice, painted for Brussel Town Hall’s Golden Chamber. The work was a collection of four scenes, each depicting a different scene associated with the theme “justice.” The paintings were huge, totaling 350cm in height. This was extremely large by Early Netherlandish standards: artists of this era produced comparatively smaller artworks than their Italian counterparts.


It was common practice for town halls to exhibit moralistic panels in their chambers, especially those dealing with “justice” or the Last Judgement. Dieric Bouts, working less than twenty miles away from Rogier van der Weyden at the time, painted two works for the Town Hall in Leuven, with one depicting the Justice of Emperor Otto III and the other the Last Judgement.


Interestingly, the Scenes of Justice were apparently signed by Rogier van der Weyden. Unfortunately, the paintings were destroyed in 1695 during the Nine Years War, when French troops attacked Brussels. We only know about them through descriptions of past viewers (which included, among others, esteemed artist Albrecht Dürer) and visual reproductions, such as the tapestry pictured above.


6. Nicholas Of Cusa Described Him As “The Greatest Of Painters”

braque family triptych
The Braque Family Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden, ca. 1450, via The Louvre Museum, Paris 


Nicholas of Cusa was a famous fifteenth-century theologian and a contemporary of Rogier’s. In one of his spiritual treatises, entitled De Visione Dei (On the Vision of God), Nicholas used an artwork by Rogier van der Weyden as an example in a discussion on religious icons.


Nicholas described the “omnivoyant” nature of portraiture, where painted faces appeared able to look in all directions, returning the viewer’s gaze no matter their position. He noted how, if two viewers were looking at the same painting simultaneously, each would be convinced that the portrait was staring back at them specifically. Such was the wonder of the icon. To illustrate his point, Cusa states “there are many excellent pictures of such faces [such as] that by the greatest of painters, Rogier, in his picture in the governor’s house at Brussels.”


7. Rogier Worked In Many Mediums

virgin mary rogier
Virgin Mary in Silverpoint, attributed to the school of Rogier van der Weyden, ca. 1452-1470, via the British Museum, London; Jean Wauquelin presenting his ‘Chroniques de Hainaut’ to Philip the Good by Rogier van der Weyden, via The Royal Library of Brussels


The surviving three works that we can accurately attribute to Rogier van der Weyden are all painted with an oil medium upon wooden panels, however, we know that he worked in a multitude of mediums. For example, he painted this scene including the portrait of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy in a manuscript illumination. Rogier is also known to have collaborated on polychromed sculptures and design compositions for extravagant tapestries.


Additionally, there are several metal point drawings that survive from his workshop, such as the above portrait of the Virgin Mary. Metal point, or silverpoint as it is often referred to, was a form of sketching with metal on specially prepared paper so it wouldn’t smudge. Metal point was a useful preparatory method for detailed portrait work as it was quicker than oil painting and could be used for later reference. 


8. His Compositions Were Influential And Inspired Many Artists 

saint luke drawing the virgin
Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin by Rogier van der Weyden, ca. 1435-40, via Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; with Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin and Child, attributed to the workshop of Dieric Bouts, ca. 1440-75, via The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle


Rogier van der Weyden is thought to have been not simply a painter, but an inventor of compositions. In an era where copy and imitation reigned, Rogier invented original compositions that were reproduced and paraphrased by artists that followed in his wake.


His painting of Saint Luke, the patron saint of artists, painting the Virgin and Child influenced many panels and manuscript illuminations in turn. Just a single example of those inspired by Rogier’s original composition is another painting of Saint Luke drawing the Virgin by the Workshop of Dieric Bouts. Although the painting takes many liberties and is not necessarily a direct copy, there is clear compositional influence. 


9. He Was Inspired By Artists Such As Jan Van Eyck

madonna and child
Madonna and Child with Chancellor Rolin by Jan van Eyck, ca. 1430-37, via The Louvre Museum, Paris; with Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin by Rogier van der Weyden, ca. 1435-40, via Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


It seems that Rogier was particularly inspired by Jan van Eyck’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin. In this painting, Jan van Eyck was the first to combine an interior with a view out to a naturalistic but distant landscape. Van Eyck’s composition was revolutionary, with fifteenth-century viewers in awe of a two-dimensional painting appearing to span miles.


Rogier van der Weyden’s Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin was highly influenced by Van Eyck’s composition, and many similarities can be noted between the two. Rogier’s placement of the figures and the view out onto a distance landscape recall the earlier Eyckian painting. Both show a fantastic illusion of depth! Rogier’s rendition soon became one of the most famous paintings in the Netherlands, inspiring many copies and imitations in turn.


10. Today, Rogier Van Der Weyden Is Considered Master Of Passions

seven sacraments altarpiece
The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden, 1440-45, via Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp


In 2009, M Leuven held a prestigious exhibition entitled “Rogier van der Weyden: Master of Passions” The title was inspired by Rogier’s ability to capture fervent emotion and sensations in his depictions of Christ’s suffering. His Descent from the Cross, created for Leuven’s Archer’s Guild is one such artwork. The followers that grasp at Christ’s broken body display such grief and sorrow that a viewer cannot help but be stirred. The women are so overtaken with grief that they contort their bodies in anguish and, upon close inspection, the character’s eyes are reddened and full of tears.


From the beginnings of his career in the fifteenth century all the way to the modern day, one aspect of Rogier van der Weyden’s artwork stands true: his vivid, sensual and emotional pieces inspire awe and empathy even in the most stoic of viewers.


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By Jordan CookMA Medieval Studies, BA (Hons) English LiteratureJordan Cook holds a First-Class BA(Hons) in English Literature and an MA in Medieval Studies. She is currently an AHRC-funded Ph.D. candidate with The National Gallery and the University of York. Her thesis, entitled "Settings and Subjects in Early Netherlandish Painting," interrogates the painted backgrounds of fifteenth-century religious art. Passionate about writing accessible and engaging educational content, Jordan has written scripts for 'Simple History' as well as a curatorial content for York Art Gallery's "Making a Masterpiece" exhibition.