Jan van Eyck. The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin. 1435. Musee du Louvre, Paris
The painting shows Chancellor Nicolas Rolin (1376?—1462), born at Autun into bourgeois circumstances, who, entrusted with setting up an early absolutist system of state administration under Philip the Good, had attained the high rank of a Notable. Van Eyck — who had entered the Duke’s service as «varlet de chambre» (valet) in 1425, which in fact meant he was court painter — has portrayed him attired in an opulent, brownish, mink-trimmed brocade coat with a raised pomegranate pattern in gold thread. Rolin is viewed from the side, though not in full profile, kneeling at a cushioned table spread with a turquoise cover. His eyes are directed towards the Virgin sitting opposite him with the naked Child on her lap, while the Child is in the act of blessing Rolin. This arrangement is unusual.
On becoming Chancellor, Nicolas Rolin (1376?—1462), a lawyer from Autun, had risen to the highest public office at the Burgundian court. Rolin was elevated to the nobility by the Duke. The «noblesse de robe» to which Rolin belonged distinguished itself from military knighthood in that its members were lawyers, scholars and civil servants.
In his Virgin with Canon van der Paele, van Eyck painted a majestic Virgin, enthroned in full-face view, presenting her as the virtual object of his adoration. Here, however, the side view objectifies the Virgin so that the spectator acts as the witness of her meeting with the Chancellor. Van Eyck has minutely recorded the signs of aging in Rolin’s face. The folds and wrinkles are no less precisely rendered than the arteries at Rolin’s shaved temples, however. Van Eyck, although he was not — despite Vasari’s later claim — the actual inventor of oil-painting, brought a previously unparallelled mastery to this new art, revealing, by means of repeated glazing, the throbbing life beneath Rolin’s skin. Van Eyck does not present the face as a vehicle for the expression of feelings, but records the quiddity of each object: a visual nominalism, with precise syllabic counterparts for every «thing» that met his gaze. However, his radical empiricism did not preclude use of the kind of allegory found in late scholastic biblical exegesis.
On the contrary, almost every detail of the painting contains a spiritual allusion. This is borne out by the triple-arched loggia through which the interior gives onto a crenellated courtyard-garden. Reliefs decorating architectural features on the right of the loggia show scenes from the Old Testament: the expulsion from Paradise, Cain and Abel and Noah’s drunkenness. The scene on the capital at the right depicts the justice of Trajan. These motifs, in other words, refer to the Fall, and to a paragon of virtue. The enclosed garden with its blossoms — roses, irises and lilies traditionally symbolised the Virgin — alludes to the «garden enclosed» (hortus conclusus) in Song of Solomon (4, 12), equated metaphorically in medieval exegesis with the Virgin Mary. The peacocks suggest Paradise. Two men, one of whom seems to be gazing into the receding landscape, are shown looking over the parapet. The one on the right is wearing a red, scarfed headdress, presumably similar to that worn by van Eyck himself — a hypothesis prompted by van Eyck’s Man in a Red Turban (London), thought to be a self-portrait, and by the metallic reflection on St. George’s armour in his Paele-panel. Although the landscape is realistic in the Chancellor Rolin painting, it is not, in fact, an authentic scene. Instead, van Eyck has used various sketches to construct an ideal «panoramic landscape» with an alpine massif disappearing into the distant, atmospheric blue.
Emil Kieser has shown convincingly that the bridge over the river, on which a tiny cross may be made out, should be seen in connection with the murder of Philip the Good’s father, John the Fearless, on the bridge at Montereau on 10 Sept. 1419. The Treaty of Arras, concluded by Rolin on 21 Sept. 1435, contained a decree to the effect that a cross in memory of the assassination be erected on the bridge. The years between the murder and the recently concluded Treaty can be read in the number of floor-tiles between the arcade and the picture-plane.
A bridge can be seen in the middle distance of a landscape extending to an Alpine skyline. Van Eyck probably wished to refer to some historical event. John the Fearless was murdered on the bridge at Montereau in 1419.
The terraced garden with its roses, irises and lilies, symbols of the Virgin,
is an allusion to a passage in Song of Solomon:
«A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed»