Decoding the great Flemish Primitive Jan van Eyck [Bruges & Ghent]

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

The stunning realism, numerous details and vivid colours of Jan van Eyck’s paintings give them an irresistible appeal that makes the Flemish Primitive an undisputed master who revolutionized European art and is still one of the most revered artists to this day. One of the founders of Flemish painting, his style was unique and has inspired many. His technique was so innovative that he is still often considered – wrongly – as the inventor of oil painting. Travelling to both Bruges and Ghent is the best way to learn more about Jan van Eyck, admire his most acclaimed masterpieces and rediscover his art and genius thanks to state-of-the-art technologies.

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Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), the painter of the Duke [Bruges]

Van Eyck was born in around 1390, probably in Maaseik in today’s Belgian province of Limburg. After working for several years in today’s Northern Netherlands, he first appeared in Bruges in 1425, attracted by the vibrant metropolis ruled by the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, a powerful and wealthy patron of the arts. Van Eyck became court painter, being active in many artistic works such as painting some sculptures on the façade of the city hall, or drawing tapestries. Having the trust of Philip the Good, he was also sent on diplomatic missions all over Europe.

In the 15th century, Bruges lived its Golden Age, and “Made in Bruges” was synonymous with luxury. The urban planning showcased nations’ houses of merchants and modern civic buildings. The elite loved to remind its wealth by living in luxury and buying art. Everything could be found in the trading hub of the world: precious materials such as indigo from Genoa or lapis lazuli from Afghanistan that were essential to painters, amber that was used as a drying agent, exotic goods, rich fabrics like brocade from Lucca delicately reproduced on Flemish Primitives’ masterpieces, or expensive tiles from Valence found in merchants’ houses would all be available at the market.

In 1431, Jan van Eyck purchased a house in the city on Gouden Handstraat where he set up his studio (that has been lost) where about ten assistants worked by his side. It was located in the midst of rich merchants and large inns, close to his potential and wealthy clients. Until his death in 1441, this is where the master painted his famous portraits and panels, perhaps even parts of The Ghent Altarpiece, and where he perfected his technique.

Is Van Eyck the inventor of oil painting?

No. Before Van Eyck, oil painting had been used. The most ancient recollection of it is in cave paintings when prehistoric men used animal fat to fix their pigments.

However, if Van Eyck cannot be credited with having invented oil painting, he democratised and perfected it to the point that his paintings remain bright with hardly any restoration needed, more than 500 years after being completed!

While many of his contemporaries from Southern Europe used egg tempera, Van Eyck mixed linseed oil and oil from nuts with diverse colours. The egg tempera dries fast and as it must be worked while wet, the technique does not allow for many variations. Oil painting gives the artist a lot more time to rework the panel, allowing different layers for a more subtle rendering of light, for depicting the smallest details, reflections and shadows that permitted a better rendering of the newly discovered perspective techniques of the Italian Renaissance.

Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele (1436), The Groeninge Museum [Bruges]

Born in Bruges into a reputed family of brokers, who for generations had occupied important ecclesiastical positions, Joris van der Paele was a man of considerable standing. An official of the Pope for 30 years, he travelled throughout Europe and grew extremely rich by accumulating functions that he did not perform but got paid for. Back in his hometown, and still very ambitious, age caught up on him: at past 50, he suffered from rheumatisms and arteritis that led him to think hard about his afterlife. He created a fund so that he would be prayed for after his death, and decided to commission a painting. Not any painting: a painting that would make him immortal. He went to the most famous master of his era: Jan van Eyck.

The master realized his largest painting on a single panel, carefully thinking about every element of his composition. Beyond Mary and Child, Saint Donatian representing the church the Canon van der Paele donated the painting to, and Saint George, the patron of the commissioner, many symbols from the Ancient Testament can be observed: the cross of Saint Donatian that was holding a splinter from the cross on which Jesus died and that symbolizes the eternal life van der Paele is contemplating, Cain and Abel fighting on the throne, Samson toeing the lion apart with his bare hands, Adam and Eve who caused mankind to lose its immortality…

Van Eyck spared no details and carefully represented some of the luxury goods that were sold in Bruges at the time: tiles from Valencia in Southern Spain, a delicate carpet from the Middle East, pearls and precious stones, a luxurious prayer book and an exotic bird. His realism also depicts the condition of van der Paele with his veins popping out on his blown-up portrait. The oil painting technique allowed van Eyck to render the sparkling jewels, the soft fabrics and the shining armour of Saint George in which the master is reflected.

However, this masterpiece has been challenged for years as it may seem its perspective is not perfect. The very educated Van Eyck with his great knowledge of geometry, used to be seen as a late adopter of the laws of perspective uncovered by the innovative Italians of the Renaissance…

For centuries, artists and scientists had tried to represent the depth of a space or landscape on a flat surface as realistically as possible. Some perspective machines involving threads or glass pane or grid like the one invented by Alberti (1435) were created while others used mathematical formulae. Researcher and architect Dr. Patrick Seurinck analysed Van Eyck’s painting with 3D tools to discover that van Eyck had indeed pierced the secrets of perspective. It turns out that Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele is composed to the millimetre in a perfect geometry which code is given away by van Eyck himself! The perspective is respected while elements are positioned in a peaceful way for the eye evoking an overall harmony. In his painting, the right-hand side pillar combines perspective and composition in an unrealistic element.

Maybe the Canon Joris van der Paele earned his place in heaven thanks to this painting, a sure thing is that he succeeded in showcasing his status and keeping his memory alive, as this masterpiece has been admired for centuries and ranks amongst world’s most significant paintings.

The adoration of the mystic lamb (1432), Saint Bavo Cathedral [Ghent]

The massive altarpiece was commissioned by Elisabeth Borluut and Joos Vijd (who are represented on it) to encourage believers to pray. The Borluut family had played an important role in Ghent’s public life for decades since the Battle of the Golden Spurs. The mayor Joos Vijd had acquired wealth more recently thanks to iron and cloth trade. The lamb represents Jesus, and his sacrifice is to allow mankind to reconnect with god, and is the most famous painting by Jan van Eyck often referred to as The Ghent Altarpiece.

Today, the altarpiece is safely kept on display at the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, the cathedral it was painted for. It has not always been the case though as The Ghent Altarpiece is the most stolen artwork in the world!

  • It started in 1566 when Protestant Calvinists raided the cathedral to burn the altarpiece, that represented Catholic idolatry and excess. Thankfully, the masterpiece was saved by a few Catholic guards who had been tipped off and who dismantled and hid it in the tower of the cathedral.
  • During the Napoleonic Wars, it was stolen and exhibited in Le Louvre in Paris, before being returned to Ghent by France after Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.
  • Later, it ended up in a Berlin museum after being returned to Ghent as a condition to WWI peace treaty.
  • In 1934, common thieves broke into the cathedral at night to steal a panel.
  • During WWII, the Nazis stole the altarpiece believing it would give them some supernatural powers. They hid it in a converted salt mine in Austria with thousands of other artworks. It was a close call as the mine was to be blown up as the Allies were closing in.

The monumental painting comprises twelve individual painted panels linked in a massive framework. It used to be open only for religious holidays. On the closed side, the Annunciation set in the Ghent medieval cityscape is painted, with the commissioners, and their patron saints. On the opened side, the colour palette is much more festive and the central panel displays pilgrims of all social backgrounds converging towards the lamb on a sacrificial altar, bleeding into a golden chalice. In the upper panels, God the Father sits enthroned, with Mary and John the Baptist by His side.

The contrast between the monumental size of the altarpiece and the level of minute details in the panels is mind-blowing: shining jewels, individual hairs on the manes of horses, unique facial expressions including most probably the first work showing someone laughing, tufts of grass, the folds of garment, and individual silvery hairs amid the chestnut curls of a beard, portraits of the Duke Philip the Good, readable text in the sacred books… The Ghent Altarpiece is often referred to as the first major oil painting, and is definitely one the most important paintings in history.

In the footsteps of Jan Van Eyck

  • The Groeninge Museum in Bruges is an excellent museum with a stunning collection of Flemish Primitives showcasing how the metropolis kept attracting artists in the footsteps of the master: Hans Memling (1433-1494), Jan Provoost (1465-1529), Gerard David (1450-1523) …
  • The Saint John Hospital Museum in Bruges displays a rich collection of Hans Memling’s paintings.
  • The Historium in Bruges is an excellent attraction that makes you step into van Eyck’s studio in Bruges in 1435 when he was painting Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele, and visit the Saint Donatian Church thanks to virtual reality.


  • This article was put together thanks to the excellent “van Eyck in depth” pop up exhibition of the GUM (Ghent University Museum) about perspective and composition in Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele, as well as the great interactive information provided at the permanent exhibition at the Groeninge Museum in Bruges.
  • We would like to thank the artist Lieven Lefere who reconstructed in 1:1 scale the decor of the Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele in his studio in Ghent and has been a great source of information to write this article.
  • To explore all the details of the van Eyck’s paintings, refer to Closer to Van Eyck. The images of The Ghent Altarpiece and Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele shown in this article are extracted from this website.

For more in Belgium, click on the images below:

4 thoughts on “Decoding the great Flemish Primitive Jan van Eyck [Bruges & Ghent]

    • Yes, definitely! It’s mind blowing to see all the symbolic in these paintings (especially the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) that people back then used to understand easily (when most of us today need quite a bit of research to make sense of it).
      Thanks for your read & comment!

    • Thank you very much. It did take quite a bit of research to put this article together! So very happy you appreciate it 🙂
      I find it so interesting and fun to study these paintings looking for clues and details & to see how modern technology can unveil century-old mysteries.
      It does give it a much deeper dimension than “just” looking at beautiful graphics & allows to actually see a lot more. (Sorry – my geeky side 🙈!)

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