The Early Renaissance





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Petrus Christus





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Petrus Christus
 
 





 
Petrus Christus
 

born c. 1420, , Baerle, Brabant [now in Belgium]
died 1472/73, Bruges


Flemish painter whoreputedly introduced geometric perspective into the Netherlands.

In 1444 Christus became a citizen of Bruges, where he worked until his death. He is believed to have been trained in Jan van Eyck's studio.His naturalistic mature style, characterized by jewellike execution, is a simplified adaptation of his supposed master's style. But some of his motifs and compositions were drawn from the emotional tradition of Early Netherlandish art.

Christus' historical significance lies primarily in his intense interest in the definition of space; his “Virgin with SS. Jeromeand Francis” is the earliest Netherlandish painting with a single vanishing point. Among Christus' most important paintings are “Portrait of a Carthusian” (1446), “St. Eligius” (1449), the “Virgin with SS. Jerome and Francis” (probably 1457), and the “Virgin with Child, St. Barbara and a Carthusian Monk.”

            
 

          
Petrus Christus

 
St. Eligius


A Christian artisan advertises his craft

(by Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen)

 

             
 


St Eligius in His Workshop
1449
Oil on wood, 98 x 85 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

        

 
       

Three figures in a narrow interior. The convex mirror shows two men standing on the street outside. Like the spectator, they are gazing into the picture space: a goldsmith's workshop. Guild regulations demanded a shop be open to the street so that customers could assure themselves that a smith was not guilty of doctoring his precious metals.
The goldsmith is painted in the act of weighing a ring; a young, richly dressed couple looks on attentively. However, the eyes of the goldsmith are not focused on the scales in his hand but raised in an upward gaze. He is more than an ordinary artisan: he is the patron saint of goldsmiths, St. Eligius.
The artist has added a Latin inscription to the bottom edge of the 98 x 85 cm panel. Translated, it reads: "Petrus Christus made me in the year 1449." This was unusual in the 15th century; artists tended to remain anonymous and rarely dated their paintings. Little is known of the artist's life: he acquired the citizenship of Bruges on 6th July 1444; in 1462 he joined a brotherhood; he is mentioned seven years later as a distinguished member of the artists' guild, which also registered his death in 1473.
Petrus Christus was born at Baerle, probably in 1415. It is thought he may have been the pupil of Jan van Eyck (c. 1370— 1441), and that he completed works left unfinished by the master at his death before founding his own workshop, for which he was obliged to acquire citizenship. 1449, the year in which he painted St. Eligius, also saw the dedication in Bruges of the Chapel of Smiths, the guild to which goldsmiths belonged. Perhaps this event occasioned Petrus Christus's painting of St. Eligius in his workshop.
In the 19th century the painting entered the collection of a German who claimed to have bought it from a Dutchman. The Dutchman had apparently claimed to be the sole surviving member of the Antwerp Goldsmiths' Guild. Antwerp had overtaken Bruges as a centre of trade and commerce in the late 15th century. Perhaps the painting followed the flow of money. Today it is in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.
The painting is a devotional work, but it also served as a kind of advertisement for the goldsmiths' craft and guild. Behind the pious man, Petrus Christus has arrayed a selection of rings, silver pitchers, a chain, brooches and pearls -luxury goods for which, in the year 1449, there was considerable demand in the wealthy town of Bruges. At that time the town belonged to the Duchy of Burgundy, a kingdom amassed in three generations by the French dukes of Valois, extending from the French province of Burgundy, which bordered with Switzerland, to the North Sea. Its commercial capital, and indeed that of the whole of northern Europe, was Bruges. Ships sailed here from the Mediterranean, England and the Hanseatic ports. Bruges was a busy overseas trading centre for timber, cereals, furs and dried cod from the north, and for wine, carpets, silks and spices from the south. In one day in 1457, Bruges's harbour on the Zwijn at Sluis contained two Spanish and 42 British caravels, three Venetian galleys, a Portuguese hulk and twelve sailing ships from Hamburg. These were good times -not least for producers of luxury goods.
The merchants of the day devoted special attention to weighing goods, for different countries used different units of measurement and fear of fraud 'was widespread. In 1282, the merchants of the Hanse had managed to have one of their own weighing scales, constructed in Lubeck, set up in Bruges. That a saint should be painted in the act of weighing, in which trust played such an essential part, rather than executing some other form of work, is probably no coincidence.
Trade attracted finance, and Italian banks chose Bruges as a base for their northern branches. The gold coins of many nations circulated in the town. On the saint's counter can be seen gulden from Mainz, English angels and, of course, the heavy "riders" of Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy (1396-1467), regent during Petrus Christus's lifetime.

 

            
      

 

From blacksmith to minister
         

 

St Eligius in His Workshop (detail)
      

 

Even today Saint Eligius is well-known to French-speaking children as "grand Saint Eloi" who, in a popular ditty, informs absent-minded king Dagobert that he has his trousers on back-to-front, to which the king replies that he will just have to turn them back round again then. In one sense at least the song is based on historical fact: Eligius really did act as personal adviser to the Merovingian King Dagobert.
Eloi, or Eligius, was born at Limoges in c. 588, completed an apprenticeship as a goldsmith and soon gained a reputation as a thrifty and skilful craftsman. Commissioned by the court to make a throne, Eligius, using the precious materials, gold and jewels provided, managed to produce two, whereupon the king appointed him minister and master of the mint. A coin, the "sou de Paris", bore his signature. Because Eligius was very pious, Dagobert also appointed him Bishop of the Diocese of Noyon, which included Bruges. As a bishop he is said to have led a lapsed population back to the Church. He founded several monasteries and chapels, and three churches in Bruges alone.
A number of miracles were ascribed to him, greatly strengthening his hand as a missionary. He is said to have started out as a blacksmith. When brought a particularly wild horse to shoe one day, so legend has it, he severed the horse's foot, fitted it with a new shoe, and put it back on again, whereupon the horse cantered friskily away. It became a custom on the saint's feast day on 1st December to provide large quantities of wine for the blacksmiths and everybody who worked in the stables.
Rather than displaying him in episcopal robes, Petrus Christus paints the saint in the clothes worn by the citizens who were his customers. Eligius became the patron saint of blacksmiths, goldsmiths and money changers. These shared a common chapel and marched together at processions under the banner of the blacksmiths, whose guild, though possibly not the most elegant, was certainly the most powerful.
The guilds emerged in the Netherlandish townships of the 14th century. Their purpose was to prevent ruinous competition, to guarantee high standards of workmanship and represent the interests of craftsmen. Thus goldsmiths were required to work at an open window but forbidden — according to a 14th-century Netherlandish document — to draw attention to themselves or canvass custom by "sneezing or sniffling". They were also bound to confine their business practice to one place. Each guild had its own religious superstructure with a patron saint and, if wealthy enough, an altar or chapel of its own.
The medieval guilds of Bruges, like those of other towns, made a decisive contribution to the city's rise and fall. Originally progressive associations became clubs for the defence of privilege. Closing their ranks to new members and new methods of production, they constantly quarrelled with other guilds and thus were responsible for sapping the strength of the citizens' council, which, in turn, made it easier for the Dukes of Burgundy to bind the townsfolk to their will. When a revolt against the Duke's policies failed in 1436/37, the citizens were forced to beg on their knees for forgiveness.
By 1494, half a century after Petrus Christus painted his portrait of St. Eligius, "trade in Bruges had come to a standstill". Some 4000 to 5000 houses were left behind - "empty, locked up or ruined". The merchants and bankers moved to the more flexible town of Antwerp, where medieval guild regulations were no longer applied in quite such a narrow-minded manner.

 

     
      

 

Rich and famous customers
         

 

St Eligius in His Workshop (detail)
   

 

A ring, reputedly made by Eligius for St. Godeberta, was once kept at the Noyon Cathedral treasury (Eligius see).
Wealthy suitors are said to have competed for Godeberta's hand, but her parents could not decide without the consent of the king, who may well have been interested in the girl himself. The matter was in council before the king when Eligius intervened with his golden ring, declaring the young woman to be a bride of Christ. Religious critics have inferred that the painting alludes to the legend. But rather than painting the saint as an opponent of worldly marriage, it is more likely, and probably far more in keeping with the patron's interests, that the artist wished to show him as a supporter and guardian of marriage. After all, the manufacture of wedding rings was a lucrative department of the goldsmith's trade. Eligius is seen weighing a ring in the painting. A traditional wedding girdle lies on the counter in front of the couple.
It is unknown whether the work - like Jan van Eyck's "Arnolfini" portrait - is the depiction of a particular couple. Both persons wear sumptuous, fashionable clothes only members of the Burgundian duke's court could afford, or the few wealthy burghers who mixed with the aristocracy. The lady's gold brocade with its exotic pomegranate pattern probably came from Italy; her golden bonnet is embroidered with pearls. Following a trend set by the duke, courtiers were richly adorned with jewellery. The lady's fiance wears not only a heavy gold chain but a brooch pinned to his elegantly bound headgear. He may well have been one of the goldsmith's better customers.
However, the Bruges jewellers' best customer was the Duke himself. In 1456 French visitors reported never having "seen the like of such wealth or such brilliance" as witnessed at the Burgundian court, and one chronicler described Philip the Good as "the richest prince of his day". Every object he used, from his cup to his toothpick, was made of solid gold, and he possessed a large collection of precious stones, brooches, rings and clasps.
Not only was his festive table opulently laid for banquets, but tables along the walls, piled with plates and dishes and guarded by members of the goldsmith's guild, made a deliberate display of costly tableware owned by the Duke. A salt-cellar decorated with sirens was considered an especially valuable piece. It was valued at about 900 ducats, the equivalent of approximately 200 times the yearly wage of a craftsman.
There was a degree of pragmatism in this ostentation. Gold and silver demonstrated wealth, and wealth was an important pillar of power. Moreover, symbols of power had to be readily transportable, for like all great potentates, the Burgundian dukes were highly mobile, travelling constantly from one residence to the next. The treasure was carried from place to place, and it was quite common for services to be rewarded not with money, but with golden dishes, jewel-encrusted boxes or solid gold chains. In a manner of speaking, a goldsmith produced disposable assets.

 

       
        

 

Gems as a protection against poison
 

 

St Eligius in His Workshop (detail)
                    

 

Probably the most valuable of the artefacts ranged on the workshop's shelves were the tiny, dark, trowel-like objects pinned to the wall on thin gold chains. They were called "adder's tongues" or "glossopetrae"; in fact they were fossilized sharks' teeth. They were supposed to detect poison by changing colour on contact. In view of their importance "touchstones" like this were given an appropriately showy setting. The preference for drinking from coconut-shell goblets was based on a belief that the exotic fruit had the property of a counter-poison. A vessel of this kind can be seen on one of the shelves, half concealed by a curtain. The demand for "touchstones" was great, for princes led dangerous lives. Both Philip's father and his uncle were assassinated. Rumours of attempts to poison various other members of his family abounded, and there was evidence of an attempt to poison Philip's heir, Charles the Bold, in 1461. Rulers had servants whose job was to taste the food before they ate it, thus protecting them against poisoning. The vessels from which their food was served were covered by special lids to prevent anything being added en route between kitchen and table. The "privilege of lids" was a form of protection enjoyed solely by the ruling princes of the day.
Most of the objects on the goldsmith's shelves served a dual purpose: they were not only jewels, but a means of warding off evil. Magical qualities were ascribed to branching coral; it was supposed to stop haemorrhages. Rubies were said to help against putrefaction and sapphires to heal ulcers; the two oblong articles leaning against the wall were probably touchstones. Above them are brooches, a rosary of coral and amber and a golden buckle that would fit the wedding girdle. The vessel of gold and glass next to the branching coral was probably used to keep relics or consecrated communion wafers.
Religion, magic and symbolism have lent a particular aura to the art of the goldsmith. Besides their value and magical powers, precious stones were also seen as symbols of continuity and longevity. Gold was considered the quintessence of worldly riches, as well as a symbol of power. Whoever held power over the Germanic tribes gained possession of their golden treasure, as we know from the myth of the Nibelungs.
Tradition granted goldsmiths a special status as craftsmen. During the early Middle Ages they worked only for the church and for rulers, who were thought to rule by the authority of God. The most famous 13th-century goldsmith was a monk. In some Catholic regions the prestige enjoyed by goldsmiths may have survived to this day. A play published in 1960, for example, contains the figure of a goldsmith with highly unusual abilities and a particularly piercing gaze, a "marvellous" maker of wedding rings. "My gold balance", he explains, "does not weigh metal but the life and lot of human beings ..." The play, entitled "The Goldsmith's Shop", was even turned into a film. Its author, Karol Wojtyla, became Pope John Paul II.

 

   
      

St Eligius in His Workshop (detail)

Self-portrait in a mirror

 

The weights for the hand-scales were evidently stacked inside one another and stored in the round receptacle with the open lid lying on the counter. The gold coins next to them may allude to the office held by Eligius: Master of the Royal Mint. In the 15th century Eligius was also the patron saint of moneychangers, an important profession in the banking town of Bruges; they also formed a sub-section of the goldsmiths' guild.
The convex mirror to the right of the coins reflects several of Bruges's characteristic red-brick houses. The two men outside the open shop-front are painted approximately where we might expect a spectator of the painting to stand. The trick with the mirror allows the artist to present a view taken simultaneously from within and without, enabling him to show what lies in front of and behind the imaginary spectator. The problem of spatial organization seems to have fascinated him. However, to judge by the angles of the shelves, the Bruges master was not acquainted with the mathematical laws of perspective recently discovered in Florence. Petrus Christus was still experimenting.
Convex mirrors, sometimes called "witches" for their "magical" powers, were frequently found in Netherlandish households; hung opposite a window, they could make a room brighter. Jan van Eyck paints a mirror of this kind in his "Arnolfini" portrait. Since it is probable that Petrus Chrisms was apprenticed to the older master, the mirror in the present painting may be a "quotation". As Van Eyck's mirror is presumed to show his own reflection, the present painting may equally contain a likeness of Petrus Christus in the figure of the man with the falcon, whose head is tilted in an attitude frequently found in self-portraits. Falconry was a favourite pastime at the Burgundian court, and falcons were imported from far and wide. For an artist like Petrus Christus, however, the sport would have been much too costly; he probably held a menial position at court.
 


Jan van Eyck
Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife

1434
National Gallery, London
 

 



Although the artist signed and dated this painting, his biography has remained something of an enigma to historians. The heart-shaped sign next to his signature may be a "master's trademark" such as was used in Bruges not by painters but by miniaturists and goldsmiths. Perhaps the artist was trained in one of these crafts. The biographies of several Renaissance painters, most notably Botticelli, refer to their apprenticeship to goldsmiths. If this were also true of Petrus Chnstus, it would explain his relationship to St. Eligius and the artefacts, painted so accurately, in his shop.
Many of these objects had a short life. They were used by powerful people as a form of cash payment. Depending on the needs of their new owners, they might then be taken apart or recast - much to the joy of the goldsmith, to whom it meant more work, and much to his sorrow at seeing his work done in vain. It is known that at least one goldsmith despaired to such an extent at the destruction of his artefacts that he threw in his trade and entered a monastery.
Little, too, has survived of the treasures once owned by the dukes of Burgundy. The last of the dukes, Charles the Bold, was defeated in Switzerland in 1476. The treasure he had with him at the time fell into the hands of Swiss goatherds who had no use for it. They sold the "Burgundian booty" below value, breaking the pearls and diamonds out of their settings and melting down the gold to make them easier to sell.

 

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Petrus Christus

 

 

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