Sacred Vision

Jean Rolin was Chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy. In this painting, which he commissioned from Jan van Eyck in 1433 for the family chapel in the cathedral of Autun, Jean is reciting the morning office of Our Lady. The scene behind is an imaginary composite landscape in which we glimpse the wealth and industry of the territories of Philip the Good, to whom Rolin was grand argentier. It is bathed in a luminous dawn light. The Virgin sits demurely in a sumptuous interior, her Son blessing the chancellor as he prays. The words of the antiphon to the first psalm of the day (which no doubt Jean is reading from the breviary in the prie-dieu in front of him) are embroidered on Our Lady’s mantel.

Van Eyck has used his every ability

to infuse the panel both with mysticism and realism. As in the Ghent altar-piece there is here a mysterious source of light which is to be attributed to the (real) window behind the observer, in the chapel for which the picture was painted. The portrait of Rolin himself is a masterpiece of character depiction.

It is for us a picture of a lost world – not merely one of elegant architecture and costly fabrics, but one in which the most powerful financier in the world would naturally choose to be painted saying his morning prayers.

Mark Stevens

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