Jan van Eyck, Canon van der Paele, and Galbert of Bruges

painting: Jan van Eyck, Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele

In 1547, the ruler of the Netherlands sought to acquire a painting held in St. Donation’s Church in Bruges in the Netherlands. The painting was Jan van Eyck’s The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele. Van Eyck had completed this painting about 1435. St. Donation’s Church refused to relinquish it to the ruler. Church officials declared that this painting had been treasured by St. Donation’s and the city of Bruges for many years. They declared that removing it from St. Donation’s would provoke “moans, protests, uproar, and complaints.”[1] More than four centuries earlier, Galbert of Bruges had chronicled the murder of Count Charles the Good in St. Donation’s Church. Galbert’s chronicle indicates how profoundly officials of St. Donation’s and people of Bruges understood Jan van Eyck’s The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele.

Joris van der Paele, a canon of St. Donatian’s church in Bruges, commissioned Jan van Eyck to create the painting in the early 1430s. Van der Paele is kneeling at the the Virgin’s left. With a book and eyeglasses in his hands, he looks across at St. Donation, the patron saint of the church. Next to van der Paele is St. George. Van der Paele’s given name Joris / George associates him with St. George. With a hand gesture and helmet lifted to show respect, St. George presents van der Paele to the Virgin. Van der Paele seems to have commissioned the painting as a memorial to be placed above his grave in St. Donation’s Church. An art historian observed:

Standing before the picture at the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, the viewer is transported into van Eyck’s imagined but convincing world, an immersive experience fostered by the painter himself: his reflected image in Saint George’s shield cues the viewer to position himself or herself in the same spot at which the painter purports to stand (three feet or so from the picture plane, directly opposite the Virgin). There, the beholder completes the circle of figures and thus becomes a participant in the visualization materializing in the mind’s eye of van der Paele. [2]

The viewer becomes a witness to van der Paele being led to God through the intercessions of saints and the Virgin Mary, mother of God.

While societies are typically gynocentric, Christian understanding of salvation centers not just on woman bearing child, but also on man being betrayed. In St. Donation’s Church in 1127, Count Charles the Good, ruler of Flanders, was betrayed and brutally murdered. Galbert of Bruges chronicled the events surrounding the betrayal of Count Charles. He urged his readers to:

wonder with new wonder at the things that are written down and were brought to pass by God’s decrees only in our time

{ nova admiratione quae scripta sunt et Dei ordinatione congesta nostro solummodo tempore admiretur } [3]

Both Galbert of Bruges and Jan van Eyck perceived in real, specific details the general salvific pattern of Christ betrayed and Christ resurrected.

In his Arnolfini Double Portrait, Jan van Eyck depicted a young man holding a young woman’s right hand with his left. Beyond her is a bed with open bed-curtains. A carving on the top-back of a chair next to the bed depicts St. Margaret. Like St. Pelagia and St. Marina, St. Margaret is associated with the sexual union of a woman and a man.

Love encompasses betrayal. In the Arnolfini Double Portrait, just above the joined hands of the woman and the man, a studious viewer discovers a malevolent image:

a creature with a wide face, distended mouth, goatee, broad nose, heavy eyelids, pointed ears, and cloven hooves, whose general shape is mirrored by the carved lion behind him and whose expression echoes the menacing look of a second lion on the adjacent chair [4]

The original frame for the painting seems to have contained an Ovidian inscription:

Betray promises; what harm is there in promising? In promises anyone can be rich.

{ Promissas fallito; quid enim promittere laedit? Pollicitis dives quilibet esse potest. } [5]

Van Eyck’s paintings “invite the viewer to discover meaning at ever-deeper levels.” Disguised symbols in his paintings interact “with other symbols, overt, embedded, and disguised, to create aesthetically satisfying enactments of fundamental concepts of Christian salvation.”[6] The betrayal of Christ is fundamental to Christian understanding of salvation. In his Arnolfini Double Portrait, van Eyck subtly leads viewers to consider women and men betraying each other in love.[7]

joined hands in the Arnolfini Portrait of Jan van Eyck

Within St. Donation’s Church in Bruges, Jan van Eyck’s The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele similarly leads thoughtful viewers to ponder betrayal in love.above Eve, Samson killing lion above Adam, Cain killing AbelThe Virgin at the center of the painting sits on a throne that has decorated armrests. On the lower parts of the armrests are Adam and Eve. They are looking toward each other and indicating shame by covering their genitals. Above Adam, Cain brutally kills his brother Abel. Above Eve, Samson displays marvelous strength that helped him to kill many men. Samson’s strength was no match for the vicious guile of his beloved Delilah. These betrayals in a painting physically and substantially located in St. Donation’s Church in Bruges plausibly recalled Flemish elites betraying and killing their ruler Charles the Good and the ensuing, bloody civil war. In the understanding of Galbert of Bruges and Jan van Eyck, the betrayal of Count Charles the Good was a specific betrayal in the general pattern of Christ being betrayed.[8]

Galbert initially refrained from describing Dedda suborning the murder of her husband Boldran so as to marry her lover Erembald. This vicious sexual betrayal was in the lineage of the Bertulf, Provost of St. Donation’s Church:

although I may seem to have here a good place to describe his genealogy, it nonetheless seems enough to me to labor diligently on the work in hand — in which I proposed to relate what happened during the siege and not the adulterous beginnings of the lineage of the provost and his relatives — and to refrain from such descriptions.

{ Et quamquam locum genealogiae ejus describendae hic obtinere videar, tamen videor mihi satis operae inceptae labore sufficere et eis descriptionibus supersedere, in qua eventum obsidionis et non adulterinum exordium generationis praepositi et suorum proposui me executurum. } [9]

But perceiving God’s design in this history, Galbert two-mindedly changed his mind:

If, finally, it were worth hearing, which it really isn’t but should nonetheless be written down out of simple wonder, God subsequently avenged the old betrayal with new ordeals, a new kind of casting down in the fourth or third generation of the family of the betrayers. It is appropriate, therefore, to retrace a little further the beginning of the family of the provost and his nephews.

{ Tandem si dignum esset auditu, quod vere non est, sed admiratione sola scribendum, in quarta vel tertia generis linea Deus vindicavit consequenter in genere traditorum scilicet antiquam traditionem novis periculis, novo genere praecipitationis. Paulo superius igitur principium generis praepositi et nepotum suorum recognoscere libet. } [10]

Actions long before the siege wouldn’t be worth hearing in a factual account of events surrounding the siege. Retracing the much earlier actions was appropriate because doing so directed the reader to the invisible reality of God’s historical design as Galbert perceived it.[11]

With much more artistic sophistication, Jan van Eyck incorporated the betrayal and murder of Count Charles the Good into The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele. Even if Galbert’s chronicle had remained unknown, the betrayal and murder of Charles was a notorious event in Flemish history.[12] Jan van Eyck’s painterly practice aligned with Galbert’s sense of the betrayal of Charles:

Jan van Eyck’s religious works always present the spectator with a transfigured view of visible reality. … Van Eyck did not portray earthly reality per se: he was not interested in simply recording what he saw. Rather, descriptive data were rearranged in all of Van Eyck’s religious works, so that they illustrated not earthly existence but what he considered supernatural truth. Visions of eternal truth were made accessible in what, especially for the modern viewer, are confusingly “real” terms. [13]

Canon van der Paele had become wealthy serving as a church official in Rome. He may have committed serious ethical betrayals for which he sought to atone.[14] In any case, St. Donation’s Church was certainly a place of wicked historical betrayal. It was also a place for regularly celebrating the triumph of Christ over death.

The woman at the center of The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele represents everyday gynocentric reality. Another level of reality arises from the Virgin Mary and the backgrounded betrayal of men. In the Christian understanding of salvation, the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against women and men.

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[1] Brine (2014) p. 265, quoting (in translation) from R. A. Parmentier, “Marie de Hongrie et la Madone vander Paele,” Annales de la Société d’Émulation de Bruges. 69 (1926): 388–91, at 391. For an online scholarly analysis of the painting, see Anne van Oosterwijk, “Madonna with Canon Joris Van der Paele,” at the Vlaamsekunstcollectie.

[2] Brine (2014) p. 265. Brine convincingly argues that the painting was originally a grave memorial, not an altarpiece.

[3] Galbert of Bruges, De multro, traditione et occisione gloriosi Karoli comitis Flandriarum {The murder, betrayal, and slaughter of the glorious Charles, Count of Flanders} Prologue, Latin from Rider (1994) p. 3, English trans. from Rider (2013) p. 3.

[4] Ward (1994) p. 19. Unlike other elements of the painting (“the dog, the discarded shoes, the chandelier, the single lighted candle, the oranges, the beads, the image of Saint Margaret”), the menacing figures next to the clasped hands were in the underdrawing. Billinge & Campbell (1995) pp. 56 (Fig. 11), 59,

[5] Quoted in Colenbrander (2005) p. 414, quoting Jakob Quelvis of Leipzig, who saw the painting at the Alcázar in Madrid in 1594. These verses quote Ovid, Ars Amatoria 1.443-4, except Promittas fallito replaces Promittas facito. That change may have been a mis-transcription. Ovidian verses are attested on the frame in other late sources. Whether the inscription was on the original frame isn’t clear. The frame with the inscriptions was removed some time after 1700.

Colenbrander interpreted the inscription to mean “Keep your promises! and: Be not liable to deceit, but also: Do not deceive yourself.” Id. p. 416. That interpretation doesn’t seem credible to me. It projects bland moralizing onto vibrant, transgressive medieval practices of sexed protest.

[6] Ward (1994) pp. 13, 27 (previous two quotes). Rider described Galbert’s chronicle as evoking a similar experience of encounter:

His work, that is, is not a product of thinking things through, it is a thinking-things-through. Writing — at least this kind of writing — was a studium for Galbert and, as we saw earlier, a modum: it required freedom, composure, equilibrium, sustained application, discipline, reflection, and judgment. It amounted to a mental, even spiritual, exercise, and the residue, the written text, was at once a record of the mental and spiritual exercise through which Galbert had gone and a mental and spiritual exercise through which, he thought, listeners or readers might also go as they heard or read it.

Rider (2009) p. 30.

[7] Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini had a mistress. She sued him to regain jewels he had given her. Arnolfini responded by attempting to use women’s privileged protection from court proceedings against her. Harbison (1990) pp. 282-3. While the man in the Arnolfini Double Portrait has long been identified as Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini, Lorne Campbell in 1997 showed that Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini married in 1447 and cannot be the man in the portrait. See Koster (2003), text associated with note 22.

In considering the Arnolfini Double Portrait, scholars in recent decades have engaged in story-telling in service of dominant ideology or self-absorption. With masculine sexual imagery, Harbison praised the woman in the Arnolfini Double Portrait (whom he, following others, mis-identified as Giovanna Cenami):

she does stand firm and erect; here is a woman who is not merely shrinking, soft or undulating. Remarkably for a woman shown with her husband in a fifteenth-century portrait, Cenami gazes across to her husband, not down toward the floor.

Harbison (1990) pp. 281-2. Seidel (1993) exemplified solipsistic scholarship that explicitly and proudly marginalizes truth-seeking. Professor Allen Farber’s Art History 214, taught at SUNY Oneonta, shows the normalization of Seidel’s post-truth scholarly approach.

An appropriately scathing but apparently uninfluential review of Seidel (1993) criticized analogizing the Arnolfini Double Portrait to donor portraits:

Donor portraits may have had many purposes, but their prime function was to remind the viewer to offer prayers that would shorten the time spent by the depicted in Purgatory. There surely is no question of this in Jan’s double portrait.

Gibson (1995) p. 424. Matheolus’s medieval masterpiece of men’s sexed protest explicitly associated marriage with time spent in Purgatory.

[8] Cain killing Abel and Samson killing the lion have well-established interpretations within Christian salvation history:

On the throne arm by St. Donatian, Cain kills Abel, a prefiguration of the Crucifixion (which, in turn, signified both the birth of the Church and the giving of the body and blood that paid for man’s sin). … The carving on the throne arm on the right, Samson opening the lion’s mouth, is a prefiguration of the Christ overcoming Satan or the Harrowing of Hell.

Ward (1994) p. 39. Those figures also connect to events within ordinary history: elites in Bruges betraying and murdering their ruler Count Charles the Good. As the murder of Boldran makes clear, women were intimately implicated in the betrayal and horrific violence against men.

[9] Galbert, De multro 57, Latin from Rider (1994) p. 108, English trans. from Rider (2013) p. 101.

[10] Galbert, De multro 70-1, Latin from Rider (1994) pp. 123, 125; English trans. from Rider (2013) p. 123.

[11] Rider insightfully invokes the thought of Hugh of Saint Victor:

In Hugh’s terms, the visible world forms one level of reality and was created precisely to manifest another, invisible, level of reality. He begins the essay {De tribus diebus} by writing that “the good Word and wise Life that created the world can be discerned by contemplating the world. But the Word itself cannot be seen; it created that it might be seen and is seen through that which it created.” It is in and through the visible created world, which Hugh terms a “simulacrum,” that the human mind may perceive the “three invisibilia” of God — His power, His wisdom, and His goodness — which manifest themselves respectively in the immensity, the beauty, and the utility of His creations

Rider (2009) p. 21.

In discussing his chronicle, Galbert repeatedly used the word commendare {commend}: “it seems that Galbert thought of his work as a handing over of something to someone.” Rider (2009) p. 31. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus, just before dying on the cross, cries out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46. The Vulgate that Galbert knew renders that verse as:

et clamans voce magna Iesus ait Pater in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum et haec dicens exspiravit

Galbert’s use of commendare points to his sense of his work in relation to Christian salvation history.

[12] Rider declared:

No medieval copies of it {Galbert’s chronicle} survive, and there is no reason to believe that more than one copy of it ever existed during the period. This unique text slept through the Middle Ages locked, probably, in some chest in Bruges. The chronicle surfaces in the historical record at the end of the fifteenth century

Rider (2013) p. xviii. Joris van der Paele’s uncle Joos was canon of St. Donation’s Church in Bruges from 1364. Joris and his brother subsequently became canons there. Early in the fifteenth century at St. Donation’s Church in Bruges, Joris with his long-established local connections conceivably could have read Galbert’s chronicle.

[13] Harbison (1984) p. 589.

[14] On van der Paele and his actions to ensure “the salvation and good of his soul and the souls of his parents and benefactors,” Brine (2014) pp. 268-71.


Billinge, Rachel, and Lorne Campbell. 1995. “The Infra-red Reflectograms of Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of Giovanni(?) Arnolfini and his Wife Giovanna Cenami(?).” National Gallery Technical Bulletin. 16: 47–60.

Brine, Douglas. 2014. “Jan van Eyck, Canon Joris van der Paele, and the Art of Commemoration.” Art Bulletin. 96 (3): 265-287.

Colenbrander, Herman Th. 2005. “‘In promises anyone can be rich!’: Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini double portrait; a ‘Morgengave.'” Zeitschrift Für Kunstgeschichte. 413-424.

Gibson, Walter S. 1995. “Book Review: Linda Seidel. Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait: Stories of an Icon.” Speculum. 70 (2): 423-425.

Harbison, Craig. 1984. “Realism and symbolism in early Flemish painting.” The Art Bulletin. 66(4): 588-602.

Harbison, Craig. 1990. “Sexuality and social standing in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini double portrait.” Renaissance Quarterly. 43 (2): 249-291.

Koster, Margaret L. 2003. “The Arnolfini double portrait: a simple solution.” Apollo. 157 (499): 3-14.

Rider, Jeff, ed. 1994. Galbert of Bruges. De multro, traditione, et occisione gloriosi Karoli comitis Flandriarum. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis (CC CM) 131. Turnhout: Brepols.

Rider, Jeff. 2009. “‘Wonder with Fresh Wonder’: Galbert the Writer and the Genesis of the De multro.”  Ch. 1 (pp. 13-35) in Rider & Murray (2009).

Rider, Jeff, and Alan V. Murray, eds. 2009. Galbert of Bruges and the Historiography of Medieval Flanders. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Rider, Jeff, trans. 2013. Galbert of Bruges. The murder, betrayal, and slaughter of the glorious Charles, Count of Flanders {De multro, traditione et occisione gloriosi Karoli comitis Flandriarum}. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Seidel, Linda. 1993. Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait: stories of an icon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ward, John L. 1994. “Disguised Symbolism as Enactive Symbolism in Van Eyck’s Paintings.” Artibus et Historiae. 15 (29): 9-53.

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