Are we to suspect the presence of a hypocritical nature behind the countenance of the donor of La vierge, Chancellor Rolin? We have already spoken of the puzzling congruence of secular sins such as pride, greed, and unchastity with serious piety and strong faith present in such characters as Philip of Burgundy and Louis d’Orléans. Rolin should perhaps also be counted among these ethical types of his time. The nature of such individuals from centuries past is not easily fathomed.
The painting of the fifteenth century is located in the sphere where the extremes of the mystical and the crudely earthy easily touch one another. The faith that speaks here is so overt that no earthly depiction is too sensuous or too extreme for it. Van Eyck is capable of draping his angels and divine figures in the heavy ponderousness of stiff robes dripping with gold and precious stones; to point upwards he does not yet need the fluttering tips of garments and fidgety legs of the Baroque.
Though that faith is entirely direct and stark, it is by no means primitive on account of this. To label the painters of the fifteenth century primitive means running the risk of a misunderstanding. In this context, primitive can only mean coming first, in as far as an older painting is known to us; primitive is therefore only a purely chronological label. But there is a general inclination to tie to this label the notion that the mind of these artists was primitive. This is quite incorrect. The spirit of that art is that of faith itself, just as already has been described: the utmost in the use of the creative imagination to work through and elaborate all that which belongs to faith.
At one time the divine figures had been seen, stiff and rigid, in the infinite distance. This was followed by the pathos of inner emotions and had bloomed, accompanied by songs and a flood of tears, in the mysticism of the twelfth century, most of all with St. Bernard. The Deity had been beseeched with sobbing emotion. To better empathize with divine suffering, all the forms and colors that the imagination drew from earthly life had been forced on Christ and the saints. A stream of rich human images had poured through heaven and divided into innumerable small branches. Gradually everything holy was depicted in ever more refined elaboration down to the most minute detail. With his ardent arms, man had pulled heaven to earth.
Initially, and for a long time, the word had been superior in its formative powers to sculpted and painted creations. At a time when sculpture still retained much of the mechanical quality of the older images and was limited both by its materials and its compass, literature was already beginning to describe all the positions of the body and all the emotions of the drama at the cross down to the smallest fact. The Meditationes vitae Christi, already credited to Bonaventura by 1400, became the model of this pathetic naturalism that presented such life-like details of the scenes of the nativity and childhood, of the deposition from the cross and the lament over the body, that there was precise information about how Joseph of Arimathea had climbed the ladder and how he had to press down on the hand of the Lord in order to pull out the nail.
But in the meantime, pictorial technique had also advanced: fine art not only caught up, but went ahead. In the art of the Van Eycks the representation of the sacred objects in painting had reached a degree of detail and naturalism that, taken strictly in an art-historical sense, could perhaps be called a beginning, but that, in terms of cultural history, represents a conclusion. The utmost tension in the earthly depiction of the divine had thus been reached; the mystic content of the conception was ready to evaporate from the pictures and leave behind only the infatuation with the colorful forms.