Jan van Eyck and Workshop, “The Virgin and Child with St. Barbara, St. Elizabeth, and Jan Vos,” ca. 1441–43, Oil on panel, 18 5/8 × 24 1/8 inches, The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Michael Bodycomb
Even among the many treasures of the Frick Collection, Jan van Eyck’s painting “The Virgin and Child with St. Barbara, St. Elizabeth, and Jan Vos” is a sparkling jewel. It’s impossible for me to visit the museum without making a small pilgrimage to stand before it. Now, this masterpiece, one of the most exquisite and beautiful paintings in New York, is the centerpiece of a special exhibition at the Frick.
The show, called “The Charterhouse of Bruges: Jan Van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Jan Vos,” which runs through January 13, shines a light on the painting, which was likely the final work of van Eyck, the leading artist of his day, who is widely credited with the invention of oil painting. The painting, a sumptuous example of early Netherlandish art, was commissioned in 1441 by Jan Vos, a Carthusian monk, on his appointment as prior of the charterhouse (as monasteries were called) in Bruges. It was completed after van Eyck’s death by his workshop, but bears the brilliant conception and execution of his greatest works.
Though Carthusians renounced the world and chose to lead sober and contemplative lives, one of the requirements for entry into the order was descent from nobility. So, coming from and supported by wealth, while they prayed, they gazed upon startlingly beautiful works of art. “The Virgin and Child with St. Barbara, St. Elizabeth, and Jan Vos,” was meant to engender prayer – both the prior’s and others’. In fact, he arranged to have an indulgence, or religious dispensation, attached to the work, stating that each prayer said in the painting’s presence would hasten Vos’ ascension after death. Close to 600 years after its creation, standing before the painting still makes one feel a bit closer to heaven.
At only 18 x 24 inches, it requires near viewing. Once it draws the eye, it rewards the viewer with endless enticements. Using oil, as opposed to tempera or other media, meant the paint could be worked for a longer time. Pigment could be thinned and used in many layers, creating brilliance, depth and a newfound transparency. Under van Eyck’s hand, the technique, joined with absolute virtuosity with the brush, made possible miracles of representation. Five figures, joined in a holy moment, are enclosed in a portico, overlooking Bruges. The details, from glittering gems decorating shimmering velvet garments to a miniature cityscape in the distance with tiny ships and miniscule swans in the river, are a delight to discover and re-discover.
Just as delicate and detailed is another painting, “The Virgin and Child with St. Barbara and Jan Vos,” by Petrus Christus, another leading artist of the day in Bruges. Painted some years after the van Eyck, and just a little over 5 x 7 inches, it was meant for the prior’s private devotions. Though both paintings were commissioned by Jan Vos and resided in the Bruges Carthusian charterhouse, this is only the second time in their long histories that they have been reunited. Seeing two such extraordinary works, and learning they story of their shared history, is a rare treat.
In addition to the two star paintings, the exhibition includes a portrait of a different Carthusian monk, also by Petrus Christus, rendered with such finesse that it appears as if he is about to speak to the viewer. There is also “The Virgin and Child by a Fountain,” from the workshop of Jan van Eyck. It’s small, resplendent in tones of sapphire and ruby, filled with almost photorealistic details. It’s on loan from a private collection, so if you miss it, you’ve missed it for good.
The exhibition, organized by Emma Capron, is mounted in the Frick’s tiny Cabinet Gallery, to evoke a monk’s cell. A rare decorated hymn book that was used in the Bruges monastery, a carved, boxwood prayer bead covered with infinitesimal Carthusian images and symbols, a delicate clay relief sculpture of the Virgin and Child, a Christus drawing, and two marble sculptures of kneeling monks at prayer, complete a picture of the quietude, sanctity and beauty to be found in a 15th century Carthusian monk’s life.
It’s a stunning, inspiring show, a respite from the harried hustle the holidays sometimes bring. Catch it while you can.