Sunday, October 5, 2014


Jan van Eyck (Netherlandish, ca.1390-1441)
Saint Barbara
Signed and dated on the original marble frame:
Oil on chalk ground on panel, 31 x 18 cm
Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp

Click on this link to see the signature and to zoom: 
In this tiny panel van Eyck tells us the story of Barbara.  She is reading her book and holding a palm leaf.   Does she look peaceful or anxious?   Why is her dress so long?  If she were to stand on top of the tower would the dress reach the ground?
The building site behind her is bustling.  Spot a shed with stonecutters.  Can you see three dark windows?  They symbolize the Trinity (in the Christian faith this means: one God in Three Persons).  There is a river behind the tower (perhaps the Rhine).
Barbara was born in present day Syria and she was very beautiful.   Her cruel father locked her up in a tower.  He did not want any man to lay eyes on her.
He thought he could completely control her, but couldn’t.  When he was away she became a Christian.  Her father was furious and tried to force her to give up her faith.  When she refused, he killed her.  At that moment lightning struck him.
Do you sometimes wonder what it takes to build a high rise?  How many men are needed, how much time does it take and what kind of materials are involved? 
Rewind to the year 1437, the year Jan van Eyck painted Saint Barbara. You can see how many men are working on the building.  A man, perhaps the bishop, is showing three women around the construction site. 
The tower behind Barbara may be based on Cologne cathedral (a cathedral houses the bishop’s throne, the cathedra).  Cologne cathedral took 600 years to be completed (they halted the construction for 400 years).  It is still the tallest Roman Catholic cathedral in the world. 
Compare some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world:
Burj Khalifa, Dubai: 828 m
Freedom Tower, New York: 415 m
Empire State Building, New York: 381 m
Eiffel Tower, Paris: 301 m
Cologne Cathedral: 157 m
The picture is very small, about the size of the paper in a printer.
What seems unusual in the picture? 
Do you see much color?
Find the only area with color?
Some artists prepare their pictures by drawing the outlines of the design.  This is how the picture looks before they apply the layers of colored oil paint.
Jan van Eyck signed his name on the original marble frame.  He makes the signature look as though it was chiseled into the marble.
The big question that has troubled the experts:
Is this a study or the finished picture? 
Should he have worked more on it or does it look perfectly beautiful to you the way it is? 
Your opinion counts, please let me know on my website:

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