Petrus Christus’ Portrait of a Carthusian
Editor’s Note: This is Venetian Red’s third installment about the work of Petrus Christus, the master painter of Renaissance Bruges. Click through on the links to read earlier posts on his St. Eligius or The Madonna of the Dry Tree.
Portrait of a Carthusian is a gem-like portrait, considered to be Christus’ finest. I’ve been visiting this painting for so many years at the Met that I feel like we are old friends, with a long and shared history. Many scholars believe that the sitter, likely a lay brother of the Carthusian order, was known personally to Christus—what else could account for the naturalistic intimacy he created in this work? This portrait, while showing the influence of the work of Jan van Eyck, moves beyond that master’s portraiture in some significant ways.
The sitter is in three-quarter view, his gaze resting upon the viewer. Portraits by the earlier masters Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden used flat backgrounds—in this portrait, the monk clearly inhabits the corner of a defined space, and the deep red background glows. Light falls on his face and garment, illuminating both, bringing him to life in an immediate way. The angle, the subject’s gaze, the warm, defined, yet ambiguous background—all intensify the intimacy. The naturalistic detail—the delineation of each hair, the translucence of the skin—is astounding. The portrait represents a leap forward in the art of portraiture.
The stone molding painted at the bottom edge is inscribed PETRVS XPI ME FECIT, “Petrus Christus made me in the year 1446.” Note the fly poised on the edge of the stone—does it serve as a memento mori, as a talisman against misfortune, or is it merely Christus showing off his consummate skill at trompe l’oeil?
Like many Netherlandish masterpieces of the Renaissance, this portrait keeps its secrets. Scholars can speculate, viewers may wonder—but many questions will simply remain unanswered. The real mystery of a work like this is its magical power to reach across the centuries and seize a powerful hold upon our imagination.