New and old wedded with assurance

Rogier van der Wayden -- so far as art historians have been able to provide this exceptionally undocumented Flemish painter of the mid-15th century with a coherent character -- was a remarkable and inventive artist. He was, for instance, apparently the first to paint the kind of diptych, or two- panelled picture, in which his patron was portrayed on the one side, praying, and an image of the virgin and child was shown on the other: a private devotional confrontation. In other, larger and more public pictures he painted the donors in unusually close proximity to the sacred events forming the main subject, as though these living people were actually there as witnesses to a present occurrence, rather than separated from a remote though important moment in biblical history.

His works are either religious or portrait paintings, and since the evidence suggests that he was endowed with an outstanding ability to unify elements which other painters of the time thought to be in conflict, it seems natural enough that he should be the most successful painter to reconcile the new, passionate realism of Flemish 15th- century painting with an old and traditional piety and symbolism. He managed this, stylistically, by means of a clear rhythmic line and an organized balancing of forms within the picture frame which could almost amount to an abstract design. This was often further emphasized by the restraint of a shallow (and slightly airless) space in which the deposition, crucifixion, pieta or annunciation was enacted.

There is, because of this shallow space, no escape from the significance of the subject which demands intense concentration: the eye and mind of the viewer are not to wander. Van der Weyden could paint beautiful architectural and landscape backgrounds (sometimes, as here, glimpsed through a window) and do so with meticulous detail and accuracy of light -- but these are definitely backgroundsm and they are somewhat severely blocked by the prominence of the figures claiming attention in the forefront: he almost pushes them towards us by their scale, and by their sculptured realism.

The faces of the protagonists in his dramas, his Mary Magdalenes, adoring kings, saints, apostles and even his visiting angels, frequently have such convincing individuality that they might be portraits. The donors, clearly portrayed from life, hardly stand out as differently observed.

The London National Gallery's painting shown here is unusual in that it is composed of only one figure, in close-up; yet it is not considered a portrait. Although an inscription, naming the subject as St. Ivo, advocate of the poor, was not original and has been removed, art historians have taken the hint and the gallery favors the possibility that this pious, sincere and intelligent face was painted by Rogier as a tribute to the 13th- century Breton saint whose charity and integrity made him the "patron of lawyers." Martin Davies has written that although it is not a portrait, "the features may record those of someone who made himself available to be used." Realism and piety are amalgamated by the artist's elegant and scrupulous precision.

The picture displays all the characteristics accepted as Rogier van der Weyden's: the sense of control, almost rigid; the high seriousness; the tension of thought processes which almost becomes feeling; the beauty of intervals between different shapes; the linear strength which nevertheless is not without a delicate gracefulness; the plain light and absence of atmospheric effect or of spacious, enveloping air; and the flesh, which, as Friedlander puts it, doesn't look like flesh: it almost seems carved in wood.

The writing on the paper is pseudo-writing -- it doesn't form into words. The saint's costume supports his scholarly characterization and is old-fashioned compared with the dress worn by figures in the distance landscape. These suggest to experts that the picture might have been painted about 1450. A recent discovery, it was purchased by the National Gallery in 1971. Martin Davies (whose book on Rogier is, incidentally, remarkable for its sensitivity and for the discriminatory manner in which the author encourages his less scholarly readers to use their perceptions) remarks that "S. Ivo (?)" is "probably a mature work" and that "attribution away from Rogier seems unimaginable: one of this great efforts."

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