“Petrus Christus: Renaissance Master of Bruges” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
April 14–July 31, 1994
The Metropolitan Museum is to be congratulated for mounting this fine exhibition—the first ever—of the painting and silverpoint drawings of the Flemish artist Petrus Christus (c. 1400–1476). Despite the efforts of Panofsky, Friedlaender, and others, Flemish Renaissance painting has still not received the attention it deserves. The last major show of early Netherlandish painting took place more than thirty years ago. A small handful of artists—notably Jan van Eyck (d. 1441) and Rogier van der Weyden (d. 1465)—are familiar enough, but distinguished followers and contemporaries, such as Petrus Christus, remain little more than names—if that. Organized by Maryan W. Ainsworth, Senior Research Fellow at the Met, this exhibition contains twenty-one paintings and five drawings by Christus—about three-quarters of his known oeuvre— and should help to rectify the neglect that his work has suffered.
Born in Baerle, a village in Brabant, in the early 1400s, Petrus Christus came to the bustling, cosmopolitan city of Bruges in 1444, when he purchased citizenship. His earliest extant works date from around 1445. They are deeply influenced by the super-sharp delineations of Jan van Eyck. It used to be thought that Christus studied with Jan, but it is now known that he arrived in Bruges too late to have had any direct encounters with the master. Nevertheless, the many copies he made of Jan’s work (several of which are included in this exhibition) suggest that he had access to Jan’s workshop after his death.
Christus is at his best as a portraitist. The early Portrait of a Carthusian (1446), which is owned by the Met, is a masterpiece of psychological intimacy and canny lighting effects (or, more precisely, of psychological intimacy rendered through canny lighting effects). Described in the exhibition catalogue as an “homage” to Jan, this three-quarters-view bust-length likeness follows Jan’s practice of incorporating a trompe l’oeil frame into the canvas in order to heighten the image’s aura of reality. Resting on the bottom ledge of the frame is a common housefly, symbol of mortality and further inducement to regard the pictorial space of the painting as our space. Standing at an angle in the center of the framed “window,” the white-robed lay brother looks out at the viewer from a beckoning reservoir of warm brownish-reds. The painting is a spectacle of humanized spiritual calm and strength.
The other great masterpiece of portraiture is the exhibition’s signature image, the mysterious Portrait of a Lady (c. 1470) from Berlin. Although various names have been put forward, the identity of the sitter is unknown. There is something almost Oriental about the delicate, porcelain beauty of the woman. And though she frankly meets the viewer’s eye, a certain reluctance or reserve checks her gaze. In sharp contrast to the Portrait of a Carthusian, the painting is a medley of coolnesses: blues offset by crisp whites; the attenuated pale pink of the sitter’s lips, pressed primly together but betraying, perhaps, a hint of buried sensuousness; the elegant accoutrements of blacks and golds and gray-browns; the gloomy, half-articulated backdrop. The image possesses a burnished, inward-looking formality. There is nothing on offer here: the space is very much her space; the gaze meets ours not in communion but in distant, even wary, regard.
These portraits are perhaps the most memorable images in the exhibition. But Christus’s historical importance rests more with his experiments in one-point perspective, the first in Flemish painting. Alberti’s Della Pittura, the first systematic explanation of the mechanics of one-point perspective, appeared in Florence in 1435. It is not known for certain whether Christus traveled to Italy (little is known about his movements from 1457 to 1463) or knew of Alberti’s work directly; but Christus somehow picked up the rudiments of perspectival construction, perhaps from a trip to Italy, perhaps from his Italian clients in Bruges. The exhibition includes several pictures from the late 1450s and 1460s in which we see him struggling to master the technique of organizing an image around a central vanishing point. X-radiographs, reproduced in the exhibition and the catalogue, show where Christus marked the vanishing point with a stylus and how the orthogonals of the pictures tend to converge on it. In his most elaborate canvases—such as Death of the Virgin (1460– 65)—the handling of perspective has both a certain bravura quality and a certain patchiness: in parts of the painting, the rational construction of space is carefully and consistently worked out; in other parts, it is abandoned altogether. Whether this was simple sloppiness or a deliberate effort on the part of the artist to gesture toward something beyond rationality remains a mystery.
A catalogue for the exhibition, written by Maryan W. Ainsworth, with contributions by Maximilian Martens, has been published by the Met and Harry N. Abrams (232 pages, $60; $45 paper).
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 9, on page 55
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