Madonna of Chancellor Rolin

There are very few experiences in life that give us such a powerful shock and deep pleasure as being in the presence of a masterpiece. It is a mysterious and magical power that enthralls us. This is the experience visitors have when they rush to the 1st floor of the Richelieu wing of the Louvre to visit the new exhibition dedicated to the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, entitled Revoir Van Eyck (“Seeing Van Eyck again”). It allows us to discover one of the masterpieces of the museum’s collection - and even of Western art : Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, painted around 1435. The painting is the only one of Jan van Eyck in a French institution, but the Louvre has assembled six of van Eyck’s paintings for this exhibition, among them another masterpiece from Frankfurt’s Städel Museum, Lucca Madonna. It’s a real tour de force: the artist has produced about 20 paintings art historians can attribute to him with a high degree of confidence.

an van Eyck, Annunciation. National Gallery of Art, Washington

Van Eyck’s life is also somewhat of an enigma. We’re not sure about the date and place of his birth, probably around 1380. He was a court painter in the Hague and then Bruges and his technique and style were considered revolutionary. But he also was sometimes acting as an emissary for diplomatic missions, like preparing the marriage between Philip the Duke of Burgundy with Isabella of Portugal. 

The whole exhibition is organized around the deeply enigmatic Madonna of Chancellor Rolin. The curator, Sophie Caron, has surrounded it with 60 works from some of Van Eyck’s contemporaries to help us understand it: Rogier van de Weyden, Robert Campin, Hieronimus Bosch and some of the most beautiful manuscripts of that era. 

Revoir van Eyck is the first  opportunity to see Madonna of Chancellor Rolin since its recent restoration. It had never been restored since its acquisition by the Louvre in 1800. 

The Madonna of Chancellor Rollin is a somewhat mysterious painting: What was the reason van Eyck, a Flemish court painter, painted this work for Nicolas Rolin, chancellor of the duchy of Bourgogne ? Why has he painted the background landscape at such a small scale as to be unreadable ?  How to interpret the two small characters in the garden? 

To help us understand this deeply beautiful work, the exhibition is divided into six sections enabling visitors to enter gradually into the painting placed at the center of the room: the encounter between Rolin and the Madonna and the Infant Jesus. Rolin’s size and scale rival Mary’s which is highly unusual; the portrait of Rolin in laish robes departs from tradition of more sober garments; the architecture surrounding the encounter, which underlines the exceptionality of the encounter; the lush background landscape. Never has van Eyck depicted a landscape of such richness and details. The purpose of this landscape is to act as a conduit for meditation and prayer; the garden and the two dwarf-like characters who act as guides to draw us into the landscape. 

Each of these different themes is illustrated and explained by works by van Eyck himself or by other contemporary artists as well as masterpieces from magnificent Books of Hours from several collections.  “Madonna of Chancellor Rolin illustrates the tensions within Flemish art in the first part of the 15th Century between medieval traditions and  revolutionary experimentations,” explains Sophie Caron, who curated the exhibition. This tension can be felt six centuries later. One leaves the exhibition the head buzzing with the power of the works. We also are plunged into a meditative state by so much beauty and mystery. Jean-Sébastien Stehli

Jan Van Eyck, Portrait of Baudoin de Lannoy, Stäatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Revoir Van Eyck. La Vierge du Chancelier Rolin. Louvre museum. Until June 17, 2024. Louvre.fr/revoir-van:eyck
April 03, 2024 — Sonam Khetan