Archive for Petrus Christus

Petrus Christus’ Portrait of a Carthusian

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , , , on July 20, 2010 by Christine Cariati

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

Petrus Christus’ The Madonna of the Dry Tree

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , , on June 28, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

And all the trees of the field shall know that I the Lord have brought down the high tree, have exalted the low tree, have dried up the green tree, and have made the dry to tree to flourish.

Ezekiel 17:24

Petrus Christus, Madonna of the Dry Tree, c. 1465
Oil on oak
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

This diminutive painting, a mere 5 3/4 x 4 7/8 inches, makes an enormous impact. The iconography, unique in Netherlandish painting, has a magical quality—the Virgin and Child, standing in the fork of a barren tree, glow, jewel-like, against a dark background. Normally, in paintings of the period, Mary and Jesus are bathed in an all-encompassing Divine Light—here they shimmer in the shadows.

Flemish painter Petrus Christus (c. 1410/20-1472/75), born near Antwerp in Baerle-Duc (now Barrle-Hertog), was active in Bruges. The Madonna of the Dry Tree was likely commissioned for personal devotion by a wealthy member of the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree, a group to which Christus and his wife belonged from 1450-1463.

There are so many interesting aspects to this tiny painting, symbolism abounds. The Tree of Knowledge, withered and dry after Adam and Eve ate of its fruit, comes to life through the Virgin. The Virgin, herself the miraculous product of the barren Anne, in turn gives birth via the Immaculate Conception. The dry tree presages the crown of thorns, representing Christ’s sacrifice for man’s redemption. Another fascinating element of this painting are the 15 golden ‘A’s that hang from the thorns of the tree. These represent Ave Maria, the Hail Mary prayer of the rosary. Ave is the reverse of Eva, or Eve—a reminder that Eve’s fall is redeemed through Mary, the new Eve, who is not only the mother of Christ but the intercessor for all mankind.

There are only about six paintings by Petrus Christus that are signed and accorded definitive attribution. Christus’ debt to his predecessors Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden is often cited, and perhaps he never did rise to their level of genius. Nonetheless, I find his works to have an intense, quiet charm and power—each one stamped with a unique sensibility that blazes across five hundred and fifty years of art history.

Wider Connections:
Petrus Christus: Renaissance Master of Bruges
by Maryan W. Ainsworth

Petrus Christus’ St. Eligius

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts with tags , , , on June 7, 2010 by Christine Cariati

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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