Perhaps the only fact about the life of Rogier van der Weyden that we can be certain about is the date on which he died—June 18, 1464. Born either in 1399 or 1400, van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck stand as the two pillars of fifteenth century Netherlandish painting, but not a single work can be attributed to van der Weyden with absolute certainty. Some may actually be by the hand of Robert Campin, who may have been van der Weyden’s teacher, a guess based solely on the closeness of their styles. One look at a work such as The Annunciation (above, from 1440) makes you long to know more about the maker, whoever he may have been. The central panel of one of the many triptychs attributed to van der Weyden, The Annunciation shows the bravura style of the painter, especially in the gold brocade of the Archangel Gabriel’s clothing, based on the elaborate liturgical dress of a priest of the period down to the huge clasp holding the outer garment together. The artist offsets that majesty with the simplicity of Mary, whom the angel has interrupted in the middle of reading a book that almost flies from her hand in surprise. Throughout the rest of the painting, the tiny details all reference iconography now only known by specialists but that was the lingua franca of its day. In many ways van der Weyden’s art parallels that of Shakespeare, another figure more legend than fact today but whose wide range of artistry continues to give him life.
So what do we know of van der Weyden? We know that other artists of the time, including Albrecht Dürer, felt greatly moved by his works. Some documentary evidence of commissions still exists, even if the works they refer to do not. Although van der Weyden ran a large workshop, he left no students of note. Younger artists of the next generation of Dutch painting, including Dirk Bouts and Hans Memling, sang his praises in later years, spreading his influence across Europe, yet by the nineteenth century van der Weyden’s name had almost disappeared. Twentieth century artistic archeological work on such pieces as the Crucifixion Triptych (above, from 1445) has slowly resurrected van der Weyden’s name and art. The composition of this triptych shows an amazing intricacy of design, with the three panels unified by a single horizon that goes back seemingly forever in never-ending layers of depth. Christ’s loincloth almost playfully dances in the wind, giving the static poses of the figures a sense of motion. The religious figures, from the Virgin Mary and St. John at the foot of the cross to Mary Magdelene and St. Veronica in the wings, seem as real as the works’ patrons inserted into the scene, immortalized in their adoration. van der Weyden’s works contain such depth of content and composition that the digging may never end.
What makes van der Weyden (or the artist we know as van der Weyden today) so fascinating to me is his paradoxical modernity. Take away the period dress and hairstyle, and the face of van der Weyden’s Portrait of a Lady (above, from 1455) could walk the streets today. The lines of her folded hands continue the lines of her black dress, which continue or contrast the lines of her headpiece—all adding up to an architecture of portraiture as complex and fascinating as anything found in the triptychs. The young woman’s pouting lips and downcast eyes add a psychological touch that saves the portrait from being simply a bloodless arrangement of forms. (The young woman may have been the illegitimate daughter of Philip the Good of Burgundy, giving her good reason to be sad.) It’s tantalizing to think that a document may still exist out there, waiting to be found, that will unlock the mystery of van der Weyden and finally add his name to all those works he left unsigned, but I’m not sure that such proof is wholly necessary for those who look and believe.