The story of oil painting as we know it begins in the early 15th century in the Netherlands. Rogier van der Weyden (1400-64) was an outstanding master of the new technique. As official painter to the city of Brussels,he achieved international fame and a considerable fortune. But Rogier van der Weyden: Master of Passions,an exhibition that recently opened in Leuven,Belgium (and runs until December 6th),concentrates more on the tremendous influence that the painter had on his contemporaries and successorsand,indeed,on the course of Western art.
Some 100 paintings and drawings,mostly by students and followers of Rogier,along with their tapestries,illuminated manuscripts,embroideries and sculptures,have been selected to advance this thesis. As the exhibitions subtitle indicates,one aim is to highlight the painters genius for conveying powerful feelings,especially those experienced by Christ and by the witnesses to his death. Though only a believing Christian could have created these works,it is not necessary to be one to feel moved,even shaken,by the results.
This has been Rogiers year. Germany had earlier staged an exhibition devoted to the vexed subject of attributionsearly Flemish artists often did not sign or date their picturesand its catalogue,The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden (available at http://www.hatjecantz.com),is well worth having,providing a good grounding for the Leuven show.
In Leuvens handsome new museum there are 11 works said to be by the master himself,though the organisers of the exhibition disagree about at least two of them. This does not trouble them unduly. As they see it,that so many versions of Rogiers paintings were madeby his studio,by his followers and by later copierstestifies to the painters lasting importance.
They are right. Nevertheless,those who go to Leuven unfamiliar with Rogiers greatest pictures may leave still wondering why so many artists were influenced by him. Yes,his drawing,Portrait of a Young Woman,the most beautiful work in the Leuven show,gives a strong hint (comparisons with Leonardo da Vinci are not overblown). And those who study The Seven Sacraments triptychrestored,and some might say over-cleaned,for this exhibitionwill get an idea of his gift for portraying and evoking emotion. The upturned face of one of the three Marys kneeling at the base of the crucifixion (shown at left) has the radiant purity of someone whose worldly preoccupations have been sucked away by grief.
But the painters great masterpieces are not in Leuven. Rogiers Altarpiece of the Last Judgment in Beaune,his Crucifixion in El Escorial and his Descent from the Cross in Madrid are too fragile and important to risk moving. The inclusion in Leuven of an early,full-sized copy of the Crucifixion (the work is 3.2 metres or 11 feet high) fails to capture the cruelty or the anguish of the original. A full-sized photograph would have been better.
The influence of Descent from the Cross is widespread. But only the original makes the viewer feel,in the words of Max Friedlander,an art historian,that the body of Jesus is being lowered from the cross,not at some particular time and place,but here and now and forever more and in broad daylight. It was Rogiers attention to expression,his positioning of people and their relationship to one another,his colours and his manipulations of scale which brought to life and included the viewer in that agonising event. It took a great artist and a brave one to confront and portray the emotions that result.
© The EconomistNewspaper Limited 2009