Jan Van Eyck — A Study in Optics

When people discuss Renaissance art, they generally look to Florence and the northern Italian peninsula. In doing so, they bypass the source of the revolution. As one of the pinnacles of late mediaeval artistry and the creator of a scientifically inspired revolution, Jan van Eyck began an artistic revolution that founded the early Northern Renaissance. In a stylistic form that differed from the humanist style of the Florentine artists, van Eyck produced a combination of secular and religious subject matter along the lines of International Gothic style. From such foundation, his emphasis on realism and his ability to capture the moment through technical developments in the media revolutionised and refined the techniques utilised by the Early Netherlandish school. He used advances in the composition of the oil paint based on canola over the more common mix of egg tempera, and developed new techniques and styles that had not formally been adopted.

Van Eyck was the first painter of the Northern Renaissance who would sign his canvases. When signing, he deployed a pun derived from the Greek rendition of his name, which, in the aspirated Greek, could be read: “as best I can”. In characteristic northern spiritual pretensions that would be common in the period, van Eyck signified his humility in not being able to produce a work of perfection. Others have taken them to portray arrogance (Campbell, 1998, p32). Although he remained firmly rooted in Gothic traditions, we may see an early spark of humanist individualism in his act.

In the Arnolfini Portrait, we start to see the early innovation and development of linear perspective. Researchers such as Carleton (1982) mathematically analysed the portrait, contending that it exhibited a technique described as “elliptical perspective”. In it, we see some of the early scientific developments in art that led towards linear perspective, while we note that the artist had not yet captured a sole perspective point. A later disciple of van Eyck, Petrus Christus, would take such first experiments in perspective and develop a system that would allow later Renaissance painters to create the linear perspective techniques we recognise today. Independently, the Florentine artist Filippo Brunelleschi started utilising a novel geometric method to capture perspective from around 1413. The growth of commerce and economic exchange led to an interchange of ideas, and techniques likely interacted, creating the Cambrian explosion that we recognise as the art scene of the Late Renaissance. The commingling of methods from the Florentine and Flemish schools may be seen to have occurred in the development of art academies, which started to become common around the time.

In what we see as an essential component of the Renaissance genius, van Eyck had a career that extended far beyond one of an artist. He acted as an envoy to the court of Philip, Duke of Burgundy, and in multiple diplomatic posts. Unfortunately, the records associated with many such commissions have been lost.

In his creations, Jan van Eyck demonstrated an intuitive feeling of perspective. Together with an innate ability to capture the more aesthetic aspects of a painting, developed through his work on miniatures, he utilised the skills of an iconographer. We can see an apparent attempt to incorporate the convergence of parallel lines and the development of perspective in his artwork. Yet the mathematical chaos that derives from the existence of multiple focus points demonstrates that the artist, at the time, had not wholly solved the issue of depth.

The progression towards linear realism developed throughout his career. The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin captures a far more focused vanishing area than did the Arnolfini Portrait. We see a similar development in the Dresden Triptych and his later The Virgin in a Church. Van Eyck’s handling of perspective increased in mastery as he progressed in style.

Harbison (1984) demonstrates that van Eyck captures a fictional narrative, utilising an imagined reality that never existed. Reminiscent of the spiritualist Gothic outlook of the time, the artist created a world that merely reflects and mirrors one of a more transcendent existence. As with Dante capturing a sublime world of the secular manifested through the spiritual, late mediaeval psychology, van Eyck expresses the deep inner thoughts of a people whose time has long gone, and his world is undergoing change.

Van Eyck attempted to capture more than reality. He took what he saw, and rearranged it to reflect a supernatural devotion that lay solely in the Gothic tradition. His madonna can be seen not as “in the church” but “as the church” (Panofsky, 1934). Which leads us to wonder whether he would have been able to capture linear perspective had he lived in a different time. The nature of society is reflected throughout his works. Even as the artist attempts to break free from the existing constraints and add realism to his works, he is tied to the Gothic ideal.

Van Eyck pushed the science of his art at the time. At the same time, he was a product of his time; even as he helped shape the zeitgeist, he was captured and bound within it. In creating realistic objects, the artist was not seeking to portray the world but instead transcending into the spiritual realm above and beyond it. In merging realism and symbolism, the artist took to attain a domain that was believed, by some, to exist more than our world.

The Virgin in the Church demonstrates depth, and a level of perspective that was starting to develop within the canons, yet systemically reflects the belief structure of the time. In his fictional representation of a cathedral, van Eyck portrays the Madonna in a larger-than-life form. Symbolically portrayed as the virgin who personified the church, she stands impossibly large, consuming the vestibule space of the cathedral. For all the attempts at realism, the artist remained fixed in the mediaeval tradition of altering the size of individuals based on their position.

It was a combination of techniques developed in isolation and which later merged to form the catalyst of a revolutionary new style that exploded to mark the Florentine Renaissance. Van Eyck captured the Gothic spiritual consciousness of his time. He was also captured by it. To go further took the development of new technology, a revolution, and thought. It was the merging of technologies developed in the north with humanist philosophy.

The reintroduction of the classical works of Rome and Greece into mediaeval Europe sparked an influential shift in the cultural paradigms that led to the literary and intellectual legacy that transformed the West. The mixture of realism developed in the iconic, spiritual, and secular art and paintings of the north, along with the reactionist view of stoic scepticism, individualism, and classicism, worked to change the course of European culture forever.


Campbell, L. (1998). The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Schools. London: National Gallery Publications. ISBN 978-1-8570-9171-7.

Carleton, D. (1982). A Mathematical Analysis of the Perspective of the Arnolfini Portrait and Other Similar Interior Scenes by Jan van Eyck. In: The Art Bulletin, vol. 64, no. 1, pp. 118–124. Doi:10.1080/00043079.1982.10787953.

Harbison, C. (1984). Realism and Symbolism in Early Flemish Painting. In: The Art Bulletin, vol. 66, no. 4, pp. 588–602. Doi: 10.2307/3050474. JSTOR Homepage, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3050474, last accessed 2020/08/28.

Panofsky, E. (1934). Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. In: The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 64, no. 372, pp. 117–119, 122–127. Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd. JSTOR Homepage, https://www.jstor.org/stable/865802, last accessed 2020/08/28.

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