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Collections & Critiques

By Jack Wilner

There are some excellent reproductions in color of fifteenth century Flemish paintings in the Germanic Museum. The impressive but small dyptich by van der Goes contains "Pieta" and "Adam and Eve," two classic examples of Flemish art at its best. The exact treatment of detail which can be found in almost any Flemish painting done by an artist of this period, makes each work of art a scholarly achievement. It is true that during the fifteenth century the Renaissance was well on its way toward what proved to be a comprehensive exodus from the medieval tradition, but nothing is more representative of the scholastic mind than the highly neutralized, cool, sober color of van der Goes and his almost Aristotelian concern for accuracy and precision. It is not difficult to see, simply by examining some of the paintings on exhibit, that the full spirit of the Renaissance did not reach the art of the northern countries until well after it was firmly implanted in southern Europe.

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of religious paintings. The first kind, in order to be appreciated, requires a certain amount of previous religious feeling. Its subject, whether it be the Madonna or Christ, is what moves and stirs the spectator. The technique and sincerity of the artist is of incidental importance. The second kind of religious painting is executed without any dependence upon the subject or on the spectator's already present attitude toward it. The artist relies mainly upon his ability to inspire a new and fresh feeling: he does not base his painting upon the presupposition that past belief in the mind of whoever sees the piece will insure proper reception. This, the second kind, is a work of art, while the first kind is merely a religious decoration.

The "Picta," by Van der Weyden, is an example of the second, more genuinely artistic type of painting. The artist's interpretation of the dying Christ, far from being an attempt to reenforce the religious aspect of the situation, successfully conveys the more human and personal side of His sacrifice. (Here we find the influence of the Italian Renaissance.) Van der Weyden directs his appeal to the individual as a whole rather than to the religious element within the individual. Christ has become less of a far-distant object of veneration and more of an immediate source of sympathy and feeling. The person who looks at Van der Weyden's "Pieta" is apt to feel moved from within rather than drawn from above. A feeling of Gothicism is no longer present.

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