Realism in the Madonna by Jan van Eyck: Introduction

Driving on a small road in a North-Eastern part of France.
These are the final days of Fall, and Winter is quickly approaching. Somewhere in the distance I can see the outlines of a medieval castle. Along the side of the road a sign shows the name: Le Chateau d’Oricourt. Further information shows that there is just enough time to visit the castle.

Chateau D'oricourt
Chateau D’Oricourt.


The building seems exceptionally authentic – it is as if time has stood still. The owner of the castle is not only the guide, but also historian and provides maintance. In his historical treatise he said that the castle once belonged to Rolin, which can be none other than chancellor Nicolas Rolin! As one of the most powerful men of his time (1376-1462), the chancellor to Philip the Good (Philip III, the Duke of Burgundy) possessed many estates. One of which was the famous l’Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune, that he founded.
Without exaggeration I can say that Rolin is an unavoidable figure in Burgundy

Inside the castle my eye fell on a leaflet with a picture of a painting, showing Rolin with the Madonna. And I suddenly realised that I had previously encoutered Rolin because of this painting – an amazing realistic painting by Jan van Eyck: “The Madonna of Chansellor Rolin”.
Leaving the castle for Beaune and Autun, cities very much related to Rolin, for I could not get the image out of my head.

Let’s try to find out more about Rolin, Van Eyck and Burgundy…

In 1704 an anonymous traveler visiting the Notre-Dame-du-Châtel in Autun, was the first to make mention of the painting we know today as “The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin”. The work was touted enthousiastically, and according to the source it was located in the sacristy of the church. The church did not survive the French Revolution (1789), but the panel did and was transferred to Paris in 1800. It can be viewed in the Louvre, where it has been since 1805.

There has been much debate and speculation about “The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin”, but it is generally assumed that Jan van Eyck portrayed the founder Cancellor Rolin in this work.1The panel was supposedly painted between 1434 and 1436.2 But there many more questions and theories about the panel. The city and landscape, but also the depicted characters and objects proved to be an inspiration to many researchers, writers, and (art)historians. Was it the city of Gent, Bruges, Liege, Maastricht? Some recognized Prague and Genève. Later historians thought about Autun, Chalon-sur-Saône or Lyon. The same happened with the iconographic analysis of the work.

There are volumes of writings about Van Eyck’s “The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin”, however, there are still layers of complexity that deserve further analysis.I will delve deeper into the iconographic analysis by asking the following questions:

      1. Was van Eyck’s realism in this work driven by his desire to represent the possible utopia in the physical world?
      2. Or is this a painting in which chancellor Rolin wanted to portray himself in a delicate net of religious and secular symbolism?

 To be continued.

1.H.Kamp, Memoria und Selbstdarstellung (Sigmaringen, 1993), 155
2.Idem, 158