Nicolas Rolin was born about 1380 in Autun, becoming chancellor to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, in 1422, a post he held for several decades. He steered the Burgundian domains through a period of sustained success, a prosperity that was rooted in the booming economy of Flanders which had become united with Burgundy as a result of some judicious dynastic marriages. Technically the duke was a vassal of France but in reality the duchy was independent, a status which became apparent when Burgundy became an ally of the English during the latter stages of the Hundred Years War.
Van Eyck’s portrait of the powerful and immensely rich Rolin, seen here wearing an opulent brocade outer garment, pulls no punches. The painter’s prodigious skills have wrought a startlingly perceptive likeness of a worldly magnate. One feels it would have been a grave mistake to get on the wrong side of him. His countenance is stern and unforgiving, his piety is no doubt sincere but perhaps may not have extended to overwhelming displays of personal sympathy. However, his wealth, based on extensive holdings of vineyards, some of which appear in the background of the painting, enabled him to undertake munificent public acts of charity, in particular the building and endowment of the Hotel Dieu in Beaune for which he commissioned another Flemish artist, Rogier van der Weyden, to paint the magnificent Last Judgement Altarpiece which can still be seen there.
The Virgin is sitting on a brocade cushion atop an inlaid chest or seat. She is arrayed in – one might almost say engulfed by – a magnificent red cloak, edged with pearls, precious stones and a golden inscription from the office of Matins. On her lap sits a chubby Christ-child who raises his hand in benediction in the vague direction of the chancellor. An angel hovers above Mary holding a celestial crown encrusted with all manner of precious ornament. The eyes of Rolin, Mary and Christ do not meet; the picture originally hung in a chapel in the Church of Notre Dame in Autun (now destroyed) and it may be that Rolin is directing his gaze towards the alter of the church.
Rolin kneels at his prie-dieu within a loggia, overlooking a landscape of great beauty. In a break with accepted convention, he is not accompanied by an intercessory saint nor is he shown at a lower level, or scale, than the Virgin who occupies the opposite side of the room. This seemingly presumptuous arrangement has led to much scholarly debate but one possible reading maintains that the chancellor is not visiting the Virgin in her chamber (when a saintly introduction would have been necessary) but is in fact receiving a mystical visit from her, the result of his devotions, aided by the missal which is open before him.
However Van Eyck has created two domains within the painting – the worldly province of Nicolas Rolin to the left and the heavenly realm of Mary and the infant Christ on the right. A single unbroken line of floor tiles provides the dividing line and it is a lateral division which carries through to the rest of the painting.
The loggia opens via three Romanesque arches (a reference to the trinity) onto an enclosed garden. Of course, in Flemish art of this period nearly every aspect of a composition is included as part of an overall symbolic scheme. In the garden we can see white lilies referring to the Virgin’s purity; a rose symbolises her suffering, daisies her innocence and Irises, because of their sword-like leaves, her pain. The peacocks are symbols of immortality – the bird’s wheel-like tail is seen as representative of the daily progression of the sun and stars (or they may refer to the concept of ‘vanitas’ – a reminder that all beauty, and indeed all life is in the end transitory). The crenellated low wall, which separates the garden from the beautifully realised landscape beyond, represents the battlements of the celestial Jerusalem. The river, (perhaps the river of life) which continues the central division separates the Gothic spires of the heavenly Jerusalem to the right and the terrestrial realm to the left.
Every centimetre of the painting displays the seemingly effortless facility with which van Eyck was able to represent every type of surface from sumptuous brocade and luxurious velvet to precious stones, marble and glass. The precision of his art conjures an ideal world where divine and profane meet, a world where the commonplace is pregnant with significance, the world as a manifestation of the hand of God.
1434–5 Fra Angelico: Annalena Altarpiece, Florence, Museo di San Marco
c1435–38 Rogier van der Weyden: Descent from the Cross, Madrid, Museo del Prado