Petrus Christus’ St. Eligius

by Christine Cariati

Petrus Christus, St. Eligius, 1449
Oil on oak panel, approx. 38.5″ x 33.5″
Lehman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Petrus Christus (c. 1420-1476) is in the pantheon of great Netherlandish painters, along with Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. This wonderful painting, A Goldsmith in His Shop, Possibly St. Eligius, stands out even among the extraordinary company it keeps in the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum.

The painting depicts an aristocratic and sumptuously-clothed young betrothed couple in the shop of a goldsmith. St. Eligius was the patron saint of goldsmiths, and this painting would have served as a sort of advertisement for their craft. It is believed that this painting was commissioned for the dedication of the Bruges Chapel of the Smiths, which took place the year this picture was painted, 1449. The figure in red is meant to be either St.Eligius or a portrait of a specific 15th-century goldsmith. This painting has a rich narrative that encompasses the civic, secular and religious worlds of the time.

Petrus Christus was very interested in the definition of space and linear perspective—he was the first northern painter to use a single vanishing point. In his St. Eligius, I love the way so much information and visual interest is packed into this depiction of the tiny shop. First, notice the traditional marriage girdle, flung on to the counter to reinforce the significance of the marriage vows. On the right-hand side of the counter is a mirror which reflects two men in the street outside the shop. One of the figures (possibly a likeness of the artist) has a falcon, a symbol of pride and greed. The mirror has cracks and spots—another reminder of the imperfection of the world, in contrast to the couple inside and the sacred vow they will undertake. The scale in the goldsmith’s hands not only represents the careful weighing of the gold, but notice that his eyes look upward—indicating an assessment of value in a religious sense as well. Petrus Christus takes a secular scene depicting commerce and daily life and also imbues it with multi-layered social and spiritual meaning.

The contents of the goldsmith’s shop are also fascinating and so beautifully painted. We see both the raw materials and the objects fashioned from them: crystal, porphyry, seed pearls, gem stones and beads, as well as buckles, rings, brooches and pins. Among the items depicted are coral, which was meant to stop haemorrhage; rubies, which were believed to have antiseptic properties; and sapphires, thought to heal ulcers. There are indications that this was a royal couple in need of protecting because there are many items related to poisoning. The “serpent’s tongues” (fossilized shark’s teeth) hanging above the coral were said to change color if they came in contact with food or drink that was poisoned. The goblet, half-hidden by the curtain, is made of coconut, which was thought to neutralize poisons. I particularly like the crystal container on whose lid is a pelican, piercing its breast to feed its young, which was likely made to hold Eucharist wafers.

While it is interesting and fun to parse all of the meanings and speculate about all of the symbolism, one does not need to know any of that to understand that this is a painting that has meaning.

Petrus Christus is a bit of an enigma—we know he was born in Belgium, but other biographical facts are scarce. His work was often confused with van Eyck’s and for a time he was thought to be his pupil. Recent scholarship indicates that Christus absorbed wider influences and was an independent painter in his own right. In addition to his use of perspective, he was the first to locate the sitters in his portraits in actual rooms, not against a neutral background. In this way he made a significant contribution to Netherlandish painting, and paved the way for Hans Memling, who was the first painter to add landscape to the backgrounds of portraits. In future posts, VR will explore other unique and interesting paintings by this master of the Bruges Renaissance.

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4 Responses to “Petrus Christus’ St. Eligius

  1. Very instructive post… A few years before Petrus Christus, Van Eyck painted the ‘Arnolfini portrait’, also with a famous mirror reflection. It looks like the depicting of a mirror was a recurrent topic for painters to show their skill and technical mastery.
    Funny also to notice that St Eligius is not really clean-shaved! Makes him look more human, doesn’t it?

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Yes, his face is very expressive, so much life, intelligence.

      Since Christus is so strongly associated with van Eyck, his use of the mirror, as van Eyck did in the Arnolfini Portrait, is often mentioned. But it’s interesting that in St . Eligius, Christus, who had not yet come to develop his use of single-point perspective, positioned the mirror to reflect the viewer’s perspective, wheras van Eyck used it to accentuate the interior space in the Arnolfini Portrait.

      That’s what I love about these paintings, the stories they tell, the multiple meanings– and, because we’ll never really know for sure what was intended, a huge scope for our imagination…

  2. There is a whole world of symbolism that we have lost because we do not share their religious world. I imagine even the placement of the various items had meaning. I smiled at the comment that he was unshaven -makes me wonder how often Europeans in the 15th century bathed. Not very often, I’ll bet.

  3. I agree with Nancy who says we lose some of the meaning by growing up in a secular culture. I have a “lives of the saints” for researching all of my Italian trips because you can tell by what the figure is holding who they were (brushes for St. Luke the painter), and if they were martyred (a palm frond). It’s a simple way to understand a lot of the imagery and conventions of Roman Catholic art. The illuminated manuscripts are my big love of that period. Simon Bening is my all time favorite (his self portrait is also at the Met. Museum here in NYC).

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