CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Rogier van der Weyden. “Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin”

Exhibition: 18 May - 25 September 2016

From the Hermitage website, 9 June 2016

Rogier van der Weyden (circa 1400–1464) was one of the outstanding artists of the 15th-century Golden Age of Netherlandish painting, a pupil of the celebrated master of the Northern Renaissance Robert Campin, and worked in Brussels. He introduced the theme of revealing human emotional experiences into painting in the Low Countries and had a considerable influence on his contemporaries and successors.

At the present time, four versions of the painting Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin are known around the world. One is in the State Hermitage, the other three are in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA, the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany, and the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, Belgium. Our painting entered the Hermitage in an unusual manner. It had at some time been divided into two parts. The right half, depicting Saint Luke, was acquired in 1850 from the collection of King William II of the Netherlands, who had married a daughter of Tsar Paul I – Anna Pavlovna. The left half, with the depiction of the Virgin and Child, was bought in 1884 from the Parisian antiquarian Antoine Baer. It came from the collection of Queen Isabel II of Spain, who lived in exile in France.

During the time it has been in the Hermitage, the painting has undergone several restorations. In 1854 Feodor Tabuntsov cradled the part depicting Saint Luke (adding wooden reinforcements on the back of the panel to prevent deformation). Then, in 1867, that same half was transferred from panel to canvas by Alexander Sidorov. In 1884, after the acquisition of the other half of the painting, the same restorer transferred that from panel to canvas and joined it back together with the first part.

After the reuniting of the two halves of the painting, Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin almost regained its original appearance. Almost – because it lacked the upper part of the composition and had two restoration extensions – at the top of the half with Saint Luke and at the bottom of the half with the Virgin. It is possible to picture the lost upper part of the painting by comparing it with the three other known versions.

Rogier van der Weyden’s composition derives from a lost work by Robert Campin, also entitled Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin. At the same time there is an obvious echo of a painting by Rogier’s older contemporary Jan van Eyck – The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (1435), now in the Louvre.

The Hermitage painting is a typical work of Netherlandish painting. Depicted in the foreground are the Virgin and Child together with Luke drawing her countenance, while in the depths we see a landscape full of life.

The subject of Luke the Evangelist drawing the Mother of God has its origins in 8th-century Byzantine art. Around the 12th century, it found its way into Western European painting. According to legend, Luke tried for a long time to produce a picture of the Virgin, but constantly failed to recall her features. Then Mary came to him in a vision and the Evangelist was able to capture her appearance. In Europe, Luke was considered the patron saint of artists and depictions of him adorned the premises of the painters’ guild in various cities. In Netherlandish art, those who turned their hand to painting Saint Luke depicting the Virgin included such outstanding artists as Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes and many others. The painters often identified themselves with Saint Luke and that is why many detect in Rogier van der Weyden’s depiction of the Gospel-writer a possible portrait resemblance to the painter himself.

Saint Luke is shown in a moment of creativity. In contrast to Italian Renaissance artists, who devoted particular attention to the human being and usually placed him or her at the centre of the composition, Netherlandish artists were interested both in the person and the setting. Having placed the Virgin and Child on the left and Luke on the right, Rogier van der Weyden filled the whole of the centre of the painting with a landscape, revealing to the viewer’s gaze a prospect of a river running away into the distance with urban structures on its banks.

Saint Luke is holding a silver-tipped metal stylus, a typical drawing implement for an artist at that time. He is holding it almost at right-angles to the sheet of paper, keeping his hand well away so as not to rub off what he has already drawn. This is a splendid demonstration of a drawing technique which, we must assume, Rogier van der Weyden had mastered to perfection.

Luke is depicted in a pinky red cape with fur cuffs and collar. An inkpot hangs from his belt. It has been suggested that this is the attire worn by physicians in the 14th century. It would, however, be more correct to see it as a mantle and cap connected with Catholic tradition, the dress of an abbot perhaps, or even a cardinal.

An open book lies behind the saint. This is the Gospel that Luke was writing only a short time before. Now, after the removal of overpainting, an open inkwell has become visible alongside the book.

Lower down there is a depiction of the head of a bull – a traditional symbol of Saint Luke. Shown on the arm of the Virgin’s throne is a scene of the serpent tempting Adam and Eve by offering them the apple. Mary’s throne is adorned by an expensive fabric that should go up to form a canopy hanging over her in the lost top part of the painting.

Mary, dressed in richly embellished clothing, has sat down on the step of her throne, opposite Saint Luke, and is feeding the Christ-Child. Rogier van der Weyden has managed to give the Virgin’s face an appearance that is very natural and at the same time ideal. She gazes with maternal love on her child as she carefully supports him. After the restoration, a drop of milk can be seen emerging from her breast. Previously it was hidden by dark decomposed varnish. This nuance permits another interpretation of the subject of the painting – as the Virgin Galaktotrophousa, the Milk-Giver. A century later, in the mid-1500s, such depictions were banned and they gradually disappeared from the Western European tradition.

If we add the missing top part of the painting, then exactly in the centre, at the point where the two diagonals cross, in the middle ground of the composition there are two figures standing by a stone parapet. They are considered to be Saints Joachim and Anne, the parents of the Virgin Mary. The restoration has enabled us to see once more Joachim’s left hand, which was believed lost beneath overpainting. He is using it to point to something taking place in the distance. A woman carrying buckets of water is climbing the steps onto a square. A townsman is standing by the entrance to a shop. It has been suggested that this shop is selling artistic objects. Above it, by the second-storey windows, washing is drying in the breeze. In the distance on the right bank horsemen are galloping along. The lightness with which these little figures are depicted and the absence of any mechanicalness in their movements shows the hand of a great artist.

In early 2013, after the painting had been examined under infrared and ultraviolet light and X rayed, and the composition of the materials in the paintwork, both original and added later, work began on the restoration of the picture. These researches entailed the use of scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy(SEM/EDX), gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and polarized light microscopy (PLM).

The restoration took until late 2015 to complete. The work was freed of multiple layers of heavily darkened varnish. Old restoration paintwork and putty overlapping the original artist’s painting were removed. Areas where the original painting has been lost were tinted. A new reconstruction in keeping with the original composition was carried out on the extensions added during19th-century restoration.

The restoration of the painting was carried out by Valery Yuryevich Brovkin, an artist-restorer in the Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Easel Paintings (headed by Victor Anatolyevich Korobov), part of the State Hermitage’s Department of Scientific Restoration and Conservation (headed by Tatyana Alexandrovna Baranova).

The curator of the exhibition is Nikolai Leonidovich Zykov, keeper of 15th- and 16th-century Netherlandish painting in the Department of Western European Fine Art (headed by Sergei Olegovich Androsov).