The cruelly brilliant Jan van Eyck


Lucca Madonna by Jan van Eyck, C. 1437

In continuing my frequent visits to the Google Art Project, this morning I have discovered a painter of almost cruelly brilliant attention to details. It is unsettling to look at any corner of the Flemish master painter Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) because he produces details which are breathtaking.

You may take any work by van Eyck as displayed on the Google Art Project and zoom in on any part and you would find the man’s unforgivable genius to capture textures, light and colors. For a pathetic poseur in the art world like me painters such as van Eyck deliver a walloping reality check.

I have chosen to look at his ‘Lucca Madonna’ of circa 1437 for the purposes of this post. Just this one painting could forever establish van Eyck as a master. That he has many others is merely reaffirmation of his mastery. He is at once a very objective and yet a very subjective painter in that he gets all the details accurately and but in putting them together he creates a very subjective perspective. (If that does not make any sense, well, let it not).

A lot has been said about van Eyck’s preternatural ability to capture the play of light and its reflections even in the smallest corners of his paintings. I zoomed in on what seems like a brass bowl in the alcove on the left of Madonna to confirm that observation. Quite apart from the extraordinary accuracy of the way light reflects in the water in the bowl as well as on its interior wall, I was also struck by the way he captures it in the water droplets. This talent is scary in its quality.

It was while looking at the brass bowl that I thought of a similar brass bowl sitting on my desk. It is my grandfather’s legacy and is perhaps about 100 years old. It is of a similar size and feel. So I filled it up with water and took a picture to juxtapose it with the one in the painting. In my case the light source is right above the bowl and in van Eyck’s case it is perhaps at a 45 degree angle from the window to its left. Notice how van Eyck has captured the water and compare it with my photograph.




Speaking of his ability to distinguish between the ways light reflects off of different surfaces, see the detail above. You can almost touch the difference between the way light goes through the bottle/decanter and the way it bounces off the candle stand. One can even see the window in the reflection on the bottle.


Looking at the baby in Madonna’s lap, one cannot but notice the folds in its skin where her hand is supporting it.

And finally, the way Madonna’s spectacular pearl and jewel encrusted red robe folds and falls. Jan van Eyck even manages to distinguish between the way light might reflect on a pearl and a gemstone.


This is not just artistry. It is something else.

As an experiment, immediately after studying this piece so closely I checked out some of my own digital “artworks” and instantly puked. My keyboard is making a slushy sound as I conclude this post.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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