Precision and Innovation Mingle In the Works of Petrus Christus

BEAUTIFUL medieval Bruges, so renowned in the Flemish Renaissance, lies on the Dutch/Belgian border. Once a prosperous port, the city attracted foreign bankers and merchants who, along with Bruges' own affluent citizens, became patrons to the artists who gathered there. The guild halls, the Bourse, and the churches were finely built, and the town often hosted festivals and great occasions. Part of the great Burgundian domain, it was sometimes also allied to France, and sometimes to England. While these connections brought with them war, tragedy, and eventually decline, Bruges remains a lodestone, drawing visitors to Belgium (here, of course, the great painter Jan van Eyck flourished).

In the 15th century, Bruges enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity, allowing the arts - painting and particularly the illumination of manuscripts - to come to a fine flowering. It was then that the artist Petrus Christus arrived from his home on the Dutch border and bought his citizenship, which enabled him to join important local institutions and find sponsors. Starting here in the atelier of Van Eyck, he worked in the town from 1444 until his death in 1472/73.

As an illuminator he achieved great success. This artistry is evident in the fine precise details he gives us in his paintings - the tiny background landscapes, the perfect finishes.

He is honored, too, for his drawings, portraits, and religious compositions, into which he introduced the ``one-point'' perspective that was already in use in Italy but not yet known in Northern Europe. This method consisted of orienting a composition to a fixed point, from which orthogonals (or rectangles) were meticulously plotted, resulting in a three-dimentional view of a scene. In addition, careful sketches were made to prepare the ground of the pictures, as on a graph. Yet despite this discipline, the effect is not contrived, but natural.

Christus also brought in another innovation, this one in the pose of his chief subjects: The sitter was placed in a ``cornerspace'' position, and thus not totally full-faced, as had been the custom. The result is more natural, less strained.

PERHAPS one of the most haunting and enigmatic portraits currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is of a young English girl, either Anne or Margaret Talbot, in Bruges for the marriage of her cousin, Margaret of York to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, in 1468. It is a small picture, but immensely evocative: The lady's face is so pale and luminous in its dark setting. In spite of her finery and stylistic grace, she looks discontented and vexed - but she gives away no secrets. If she were not so lifelike this would not trouble us, but as she really seems to be in the room with us, we go away from the painting rather disturbed.

It is indeed a masterly portrait.

r `Petrus Christus: Renaissance Master of Bruges' at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, through July 31.

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