Petrus Christus’ Portrait of a Carthusian

by Christine Cariati

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.

Petrus Christus, Portrait of a Carthusian, 1446
Oil on oak, 11.5 x 8 in.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

Wider connections:

From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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7 Responses to “Petrus Christus’ Portrait of a Carthusian

  1. Thank you for another insightful post – the old masters are called that for a reason, aren’t they? When I look at their work, I’m jealous of their skills and wished that there was some where I could learn about their techniques. I love the smooth finish on their paintings and I suspect that it’s a secret that we have lost, due to time and lack of interest.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      I suspect a big part of their secret was putting in really long hours learning their craft. When you think about what a short time the northern renaissance artists had been using oil paint, and how far they’d come mastering the technique, it’s pretty incredible. Wouldn’t it be great if we could sit down with Petrus Christus or Rogier van der Weyden or Giovanni Bellini (fill in your favorite) and ask them about all these things? I’d really like to hear what they’d say about how they invested so much meaning in their work—with all the modern-era’s obsession with self-expression, you don’t see a lot of work that carries much meaning or that you can imagine having much meaning to people 500 years from now.

  2. Thanks to your earlier posts, I’m now enjoying a book on Petrus Christus (thanks to our local library!). It’s all new to me – thank you!

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      That’s great, so glad to have inspired you to read about him—thanks for letting me know. If you come across anything especially interesting, please share it with us here at Venetian Red.

  3. steve sherman Says:

    I have also spent much time visiting this painting. It underwent a change some years back. For many years there was a halo behind the head of the monk-which was removed when the painting was cleaned. It had been a later addition to the painting.
    What you can’t see in the reproduction is the play of transparent and opaque paint which almost becomes a way of describing the layers of skin-and allows the surface of the painting to breathe.

  4. Via email from a reader—

    Dear Venetian Red,

    Wow, I am very positively impressed by Christine Cariati’s writing about the work of one of my favorite artists, Christus Petrus… I may have misspelled the woman’s name; sorry…

    Her words bring to life her true love of “Portrait of a Carthusian” and “Madonna of the Dry Tree,” and her statements fill a sincere, eye-weary moment of a serious student’s research about color and method in the masterpieces of Christus Petrus.

    Moreover, Cariati’s “discovery” of the San Francisco artists’ still lifes really matters. Gosh, I believe the artist’s first name is Mimi. Cariati’s writing about the artist, including her interview, reveals the artist’s method and passion, qualities very real within the paintings, and rare qualities evident in today’s art world as I know it.

    Maybe no one besides Larry Rockefeller, Christine Cariati, and I could love The Metropolitan Museum of Art (including The Cloisters!) any more truly.

    I tried to write my comment on the VR blog itself but became tired of trying to do so through its service provider, so please post this letter on VR, if possible, so that Christine Cariati can see it.

    Adios, seguro,

    Steven Tye Culbert, PhD

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