Accordingly, the naturalism of the Van Eycks, which is usually regarded in art history as an element announcing the arrival of the Renaissance, should rather be regarded as the complete unfolding of the medieval spirit. It contains the same natural presentation of the saints that we could observe in respect to all matters relating to the veneration of saints in the sermons of John Brugman, in the elaborated contemplations of Gerson, and in the descriptions of the pains of hell by Denis the Carthusian.
Time and again, the form threatens to overgrow the content and keep it from rejuvenating itself. The art of Van Eyck is, in content, still entirely medieval. No new ideas are expressed by it. This art constitutes an ultimate, a terminal point. The medieval system of concepts had been built to heaven. All that was left was to paint and decorate it.
The contemporaries of the Van Eycks were clearly aware of two things in their admiration of the great paintings: first, of the proper representation of the subject matter, and second, of the incredible skill, the fabulous perfection of the details and the absolute faithfulness to nature. On the one hand there is an appreciation that is located more in the sphere of piety than in the arena of aesthetic sensitivity; on the other hand there is a naive astonishment that, in our opinion, does not rise to the level of aesthetic sensitivity. A Genoese writer around 1450, Bartolomeo Fazio, is the first whose art-historical contemplations of the works of Jan van Eyck, some of which are now lost, are known to us. He praises the beauty and dignity of a Mary figure, the hair of the angel Gabriel, “which even surpassed genuine hair,” the sacred strictness of the asceticism radiating from the face of John the Baptist, the manner in which a Jerome really “lives.” He also admires the perspective in St. Jerome in his Study: the sunbeam entering through a gap; the mirror image of a bathing woman; the drops of sweat on the body of another; the burning lamp; the landscape with wanderers and mountains, forests, villages, and castles; the endless distances of the horizon; and, once more, the mirror. His manner of expression reveals only astonishment. He drifts comfortably on with the flow of unrestrained imagination; he does not raise questions about the degree of beauty found in the entire picture. This is still an entirely medieval evaluation of a medieval work.
After Renaissance conceptions of beauty had asserted themselves a century later, this overly detailed execution of the independent details is held to be the fundamental error of Flemish art. If Francesceo de Holanda, the Portuguese painter who claims that his meditations on art are conversations with Michelangelo, is really reproducing the opinions of the powerful master, Michelangelo said that:
Flemish painting is more pleasing to all the pious than Italian painting. The latter never evokes tears while the former makes them weep copiously. This is by no means a result of the power and merits of that art, but has to be credited entirely to the great sensitivity of pious Flemish painting that exactly agrees with the taste of women, particularly the elderly and the very young ones, and also with that of monks, nuns and all refined people who are not sensitive to true harmony. Painting in Flanders is done primarily to reproduce deceptively the external appearance of things, mostly objects that arouse our enthusiastic approval or are beyond reproach such as saints or prophets. But as a rule, they paint a landscape with many figures in it. And though the eye is pleased by all this, there is in reality, neither art nor reason in it, no “symmetria,” no proportions, no choice, no greatness. Put simply, this painting is without power or splendor; it intends to perfectly reproduce many things simultaneously when a single one of these things would merit enough importance for the painter to devote all his powers to it.