St Eligius was born to an influential family in the French town of Limoges in about ad 588. His first calling may have been as a farrier but he later established himself as a goldsmith. He left Limoges and traveled north to work for the royal treasury where he came to the attention of the Merovingian king Clothaire II. It seems that Clothaire came to value him as much for his abilities as an advisor as for his skill as a goldsmith, and on the king’s death in 629, his successor Dagobert confirmed Eligius as his chief councilor. In 641 he was made bishop of Noyon-Tournai and was conspicuous in his efforts to convert his mainly pagan flock. He was also notably assiduous as a founder of monasteries and churches. His cult was widespread in France (and indeed in much of Europe due to his adoption as patron saint of goldsmiths, blacksmiths and farriers) but became particularly strong in the area centered on the Flemish cities of Tournai, Courtrai, Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges.
Petrus Christus has depicted St Eligius seated at a bench in his goldsmith’s workshop surrounded by his tools and retail stock, including rings, a piece of coral, ewers and other liturgical objects. Standing behind him are an elegantly dressed young couple; the young woman wears a magnificent brocade dress which attests to her wealth as does the gentleman’s fur lined tunic and gold chain. The purpose of their visit is evident because Eligius, while holding his balance in one hand, grasps a gold wedding ring in his other. We are given another clue in the bridal girdle which is conspicuously arrayed on the goldsmith’s bench.
Propped against the reveal of the shop front (for we are indeed viewing the goldsmith and his clients from the street, the bench forming a sales counter similar to the way St Joseph displays his wares in the right hand panel of the Mérode Altarpiece we see a prominently displayed convex mirror. We can clearly see the reflection of the market square and two fashionably dressed men within it (does one represent the viewer?). One of these gentlemen is carrying a falcon, perhaps showing him to be a member of those idle classes who can afford such pastimes, in marked contrast to the solidly bourgeois virtues of diligent enterprise exhibited by St Eligius. The mirror performs another function – it serves to aid the illusion that we, the viewers, are part of the action, an impression enhanced by the way that the artist has positioned his protagonists in close proximity to the picture plane, and the way that the girdle is positioned on the bench, spilling over into the viewer’s space.
The painting was commissioned by the goldsmiths’ guild of Bruges - essentially it is an advertisement for their services and indeed some scholars have interpreted it as the first secular painting in Netherlandish art, questioning whether the seated figure should really be equated with St Eligius at all, but should rather be seen as a likeness of one of the members of the guild. Whichever way one wishes to interpret the piece, there is no doubt as to its charm. Petrus Christus was an admirer and follower of Jan van Eyck as can be seen in the way that he has lavished such effort on the minutest details of this painting. Furthermore, the convex mirror is an obvious quotation from The Arnolfini Portrait by van Eyck now in the National Gallery, London. It used to be thought that Christus was a pupil of the great man but scholars now believe that there was in fact little or no personal contact between the two. Be that as it may, Christus was a worthy successor to van Eyck’s legacy.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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c1450 Stefan Lochner: Virgin of the Rose Bower, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum
c1450–51 Piero della Francesca: Portrait of Sigismondo Malatesta, Paris, Musée du Louvre