Roger van der Weyden and the Court of Burgundy

F.M. Godfrey describes the life of an important late medieval painter of royal subjects.

The story of art can boast of three or four eminent names in the portraiture of princes and their peers: Holbein, Titian, Velazquez. To these I would add Roger van der Weyden, the hagiographer of the Burgundian nobility. Roger’s name is a household word in the history of devotional painting. He gave to the Passion-story of Christ a new poignancy, an authoritative Neo-Franciscan asceticism. As portraicteur to the Dukes of Burgundy he became the creator of the psychological portrait.

It is customary to compare Roger van der Weyden with Jan van Eyck who also stood in the employment of Philip the Good of Burgundy. They represent two different modes of expression according to two different modes of being. It is not by chance that Roger rather than van Eyck has left us the portraits of the Burgundian aristocracy. With the exception of the lost portrait of Isabella of Burgundy, the whole range of van Eyck’s portraiture is bourgeois, whereas Roger’s is noble and stately. The princely society of the fifteenth century, and more particularly that of the knights of the Golden Fleece, Philip’s special foundation of a spiritual brotherhood, at once chivalrous and monastic, has left hardly a trace in the work of van Eyck. It was Roger who portrayed the grace, the dignity, the valour, the passions inscribed upon the faces of the great functionaries of the Order, frères et compagnons of their sovereign leader and lord. One need only compare the ascetic spirituality, the imponderable lines and contours that distinguish a Roger portrait from the fleshy modulations, the three-dimensional form, the material veracity of van Eyck’s sitters in order to grasp the contrast between pictorial realism and the creation of a spiritual style in portraiture.

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