The Renaissance, Twice Over

John Haber
in New York City

Prayers and Portraits: The Netherlandish Diptych

Let me set aside the art world for a moment, to talk about something more old-fashioned, the art object. An exhibition tells a story of art's coming down off the altar to enter one's home—at times even one's hands. By the show's end, it climbs back on the wall for good, just where I remember it.

Along the way, one gets a concise history of Northern Renaissance painting, the art centered in and around present-day Belgium. In each case, however, the painting takes exactly two panels. Jan van Eyck's Annunciation (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, c. 1435–1437)

An open and shut case

A diptych refers to a painting in two parts. That means hinged panels or, less often and more of a stretch in art-historical terms, front and back. It can push to the limits the unity of a work of art. It can unsettle one's very conception of art as shaped in later times, with their claim to offer a window onto the world. It can make overt the recurring Renaissance theme of painting as an emblem of both this world and eternity. The National Gallery speaks of just that in its title, "Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych."

The subtitle has a double meaning as well—the unfolding of an art object and of a narrative in time. It covers nearly two hundred years, as artists adapt their own work and that of others to objects meant for private devotion.

Of course, the art object has never really gone away. Criticism after World War II celebrated it. Formalist criticism insisted on manifesting paint and its support as a two-dimensional object. A rival description, action painting, made abstraction into an extension of the artist's body. With Minimalism, one could walk on art or stumble into it. With installation everywhere these days, one can hardly avoid bumping one's head. Postmodernism points to the art object's real-world entanglements—in the continuity of art and craft, fine art as luxury product, and its museum display.

For all that, one had better not get too close to the art object, at least when the guards are looking. Even when the signs say otherwise, one instinctively backs away. The artist's book, a form meant to hold in one's hands, has its display more often than not under glass. More than ever, art has become an object, only not for you and me. This show celebrates how that fact of life began.

Naturally art took money back then, too. In the Renaissance, individuals and religious orders funded public and private chapels, for altars or fresco cycles. Entire towns created objects of civic pride or competition, like the cathedral dome and sculpted Baptistery doors in Florence. At the same time, individuals could afford icons, for prayer or in remembrance of the departed. Diptychs have a special role here, for one can fold them shut.

The exhibition makes a concept like the Renaissance more difficult to pin down than ever. The National Gallery outlines frequent change, but also the old idea of a continuous northern tradition, one distinct from the Renaissance in Italy. By the end, art looks all set to enter a new age of Dutch and Flemish portraiture, with a new nationalism and new patrons from an emerging middle class. Rembrandt, watch out.

Bringing things closer

In northern Europe during the Renaissance, sponsors included the merchants of Bruges and royalty of Burgundy. Backs of panels often display coats of arms or other family emblems. Patrons appear in person, usually on the right panel, gazing in devotion at the Virgin and child on the left. Rogier van der Weyden, as the curators note, created the formula.

The owners of a smaller diptych could have kept it in a drawer except for occasions or carried it around. The show includes a luxurious red pouch meant for one diptych. Paintings depict monastic or private interiors with art suspended from a visible nail and string.

For all that, diptychs in the north have their own history. For one thing, someone had to invent them. They may not have emerged as in Italy from a tradition of Byzantine icons. They competed with other shows of personal wealth and, beyond the aristocracy, with other kinds of folk art, such as woodcuts. The painted interiors here have tapestries and even a cheap print or drawing taped to the wall. A dorm-room poster would fit just fine alongside.

For all its large works and many-paneled altarpieces, northern art has a sense of intimacy very much its own. Historians long described the Italian Renaissance as an outgrowth of public achievements, in architecture and sculpture. The Northern Renaissance has roots in Le Livre de la Chasse and other illuminated manuscripts. Some have dissented, with claims for the book art of Italy. They could point as well to the fantastic Gothic carvings depicted in Northern Renaissance painting itself. However, the old distinction still works for me.

Northern painting seems designed to draw one close, and that influenced the Renaissance portrait in Italy as well. How else can one appreciate such a fine brush and so many layers of oil color? A small but intensive exhibition of diptychs has to bring out both stories, of invention and intimacy. Better still, it can speak of art's invention of a private space.

At the National Gallery, one sees artists as they create a whole new form and experiment with its uses. One sees them copy one another, in a continual process of reinvention. In fact, the story begins with artists stealing from themselves and, in the process, bringing things closer.

Crossing the frame

The Mérode Altarpiece at the Cloisters has exaggerated single-point perspective. Maybe Robert Campin just had some kinks to work out. Maybe the founder of a new art felt he had to shout his discovery to the world. Maybe, too, however, the vanishing point makes sense if one sticks one's nose on the very surface.

An early diptych of his does the same thing. The throne of his Trinity spreads too wide at the left. In the right panel, the metal jug on a table beside Mary looks ready to slide off its table. Her symbolic props, including the jug and a towel rack, borrow from the Mérode Altarpiece, but in a smaller scene, with more arbitrary borders and no logical relationship to the subject at left. One can put the discrepancy down to a patron's wishes. I prefer to think of an artist adapting older ideas to create an object with purposes never seen before.

Within no time, Jan van Eyck makes self-quotation that much more spectacular. He pictures the Annunciation in grisaille, meaning shades of gray. This virtuoso performance gives the illusion of stone carving. Painters most often used grisaille for the reverse of side panels in a triptych. These scenes would appear together when folded shut. And Jan van Eyck, a follower, or his brother Hubert van Eyck left a crowded diptych of their own.

They offer an intermediary between the wooden art object and the glorious scene visible upon opening. They occupy a space between this world and the next or, perhaps, between art and life. They also communicate a sense of awe. They invite the paradox that this world turns into an illusion, while the religious realm gets full color.

The diptych stops one cold, with the appearance not just of stone but of stone come fully to life. The flowing robes and faces display all of van Eyck's warmth and precision. However, one might well wonder why he could apply grisaille to a diptych, which has no interior. He could be insisting on yet a further illusion. Yet he, too, is borrowing from his altarpieces for a simpler and more private experience. Gabriel's pose has changed only slightly from his appearance in earlier paintings, both in grisaille and in color.

Already van Eyck creates the formula of a single scene across the intervening frame. Campin unifies the religious subject matter, too, in another work, by coupling Mary with Ecce Homo. Soon Rogier turns that into the devotional formula, of religious narrative and its patron. From Saint George's pudgy face to Rogier's taut portraiture, one gets a concise look at the artist's maturation.

Crowding out eternity

Artists started, then, by adapting themselves, and they ended up adapting each other. Hans Memling initiates the game. He joins a heightened consciousness of older art with an eclectic, creative spirit—almost like Modernism. As a pupil of Rogier, he learned the formula, the technique, and an appreciation for aristocratic bone structure. From Italy he learned new models for portraiture, as displayed not long ago at the Frick. He could turn his eye as well to still life, landscape, and narrative, and his diptychs draw on all of these.

Memling's devotional portrait of Maarten van Nieuwenhove also appeared at the Frick. It lends the donor and Mary alike a greater humanity than visible before. It creates an enclosed room able to contain them both, plus their backs in a shadowy convex mirror.

The artist includes wood paneling, satiny fabric, stained glass turning one's eye within, and an window open to the landscape directly below. He enriches the Renaissance meditation on visible surfaces and private feelings, a present moment and timelessness. He also layers method upon method of representation, like a catalog of his art. Portraits by Jan Gossart build on this, with a similar reflection on the resources of his art.

Before long, humanity starts to invade the religious realm, while fantasy creeps over into the right panel. Geertgen tot Sint Jans surrounds his heavenly vision with the same glorious light he often brings to night scenes. Michael Sittow's donor wears such an exotic fur that I looked out for animal-rights protesters by the museum entrance, where one passes beneath a reproduction. Warm shadows, a shaggy haircut, and a pained expression soften the man's features. The pudgy grin on the infant Jesus could well respond to his jowls.

By the sixteenth century, donors could demand their own van Eyck, as with two copies of his Madonna in a Church. They could have it in the overheated colors of Mannerism, too. They could request more emphasis on pattern and decoration, as with the painted illusion of porphyry behind one panel. It could have come from the Home section of a newspaper today.

By the show's end, humanity crowds out eternity altogether. Painting on canvas rather than wood made the double frame less relevant, too. No wonder the diptych lost its popularity. Artist names grow less familiar, and portraiture takes over. In the show's last work, by Bernard de Rijckere, the panels have grown, and the two sitters bring their four children. Take away the middle border, and one has an undistinguished Baroque family portrait.

The parts of the puzzle

Assembling a show like this resembles solving a puzzle. As with the two panels by Cimabue at the Frick recently, no one can know for certain in some cases what might have stood as part of a larger ensemble. When I looked for the nonexistent central panels to accompany van Eyck's grisaille, I had a sense of what the curators must have faced.

In other cases, the National Gallery had to locate panels dispersed to separate collections. I would never have known that Rogier's tiny Saint George and the Dragon once had a reverse. The Virgin and child sit in a sculptural niche akin to a cathedral door, a common device for the artist and others, but with the effect of Campin's throne. One can determine the match only from identical cracks in wood.

In still other cases, later generations created a diptych out of works from different times or different hands. Someone might cut down larger scenes to fit identical frames. Someone might add a matching background. As I learned again last year with a Madonna by Joos van Cleve, later hands like these can create fresh puzzles over a work's significance.

By asking questions like these for oneself, one can get a better sense of the exhibition's narrative. A man and woman by Petrus Christus, in the permanent collection, did not make it into the show. Could the curators have imagined a central panel, or does their history exclude double portraiture alone so early in the Renaissance? Philadelphia's towering Crucifixion Diptych by Rogier also fails to make the trip. Perhaps it succeeds too well as public performance. It definitely did not hang in a living room or fold into a pouch.

My favorite moment comes about halfway through the exhibition, when invention and reinvention hang most in the balance. As it happens, this once humanity steps to the side, except as actors in a religious scene. Hugo van der Goes pairs the Fall of Man with a Lamentation. The crowd over the dead Christ seems to tumble down from the hill of Calvary, as if with the weight of grief. As Eve reaches for the apple, the serpent does not tempt her, but rather clings to the tree and looks on with sad eyes. The serpent also takes half human form, as Lilith, Adam's mythical first wife, and one can see the sadness as her exclusion from his love and from a fallen humanity.

On the reverse, one grisaille has survived, with just half of a likely Annunciation. Unlike for van Eyck, it lies where no doubt it should, rather than facing front. Yet it all but abandons the illusion of stone, even as it also depends on that illusion. Mary yields more than stone possibly could. She holds a candle, too, its flame still alive. An imp attempts to blow it out, but a stone devil never will.

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"Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych" ran at The National Gallery of Art in Washington through February 4, 2006.


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