Van Eyck’s Holy Face (1438)

This painting of the Holy Face from Jan van Eyck’s studio is considered a faithful copy of his lost original and was highly revered in the Renaissance because it was thought to be an accurate likeness of Jesus. Joseph Leo Koerner, however, believes that Van Eyck painted it from a written description of Christ's head imprinted on St Veronica's cloth using a "strict canon of proportion" appropriate for Christ. However, what he and others find most remarkable is its portrait-like quality, an innovation claiming to show us Christ "as a living prototype."1

Yet before making a statement like that one needs to know something else. This face, like that in Dürer's Self-portrait as Christ 60 years later, is based on the artist's.

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Captions for image(s) above:

After Van Eyck, Holy Face (1438) Oil on panel. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

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Compared to Van Eyck's self-portrait the proportions and distances between eyes, nose and mouth are the same.2 The eyes are of similar shape and size though rotated to make them straighter than Jan's own. The eyebrows are more arched too. Even his prominent cheekbone is hinted at in the shading of Christ's but most telling are the upper lips. Like Jan's, they are extremely thin with a pronounced dip in the center. For why Van Eyck would do this, see the theme Artist as Christ.

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of the Holy Face (1438)
R: Detail of Van Eyck's self-portrait known as Man in a Red Turban (1433)

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You should always be on the look-out for letters too. Throughout the so-called Dark Ages Christian art in the West had largely been scribal so painters were used to seeing monograms and cryptograms, especially in illuminations. In this painting the Greek letters alpha and omega can be seen at top, inscribed on either side of Jesus' head. Christ had long been symbolized by the first and last letters of the alphabet to convey His involvement at the beginning and end of time.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of the Holy Face with letters Alpha and omega underneath

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Now that we all know what alpha and omega look like, you should be able to see how van Eyck cleverly shaped Christ's beard into the two letters (bottom). This has not been noted before though the chronogram inscribed on the frame of his portrait of Jan de Leeuw suggests he was interested in visual puzzles. It is also quite unusual. A review of Holy Faces from the same period by other artists has failed to turn up any other beard shaped quite like this one though they are all forked and, if you did not know how commonly letters appear in art, they would look similar.

So do try and study the themes listed on the left-hand side of most pages. They can be incredibly useful.
















 

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail and diagram of the Holy Face

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More Works by Van Eyck

Notes:

1. Joseph Leo Koerner, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art (University of Chicago Press) 1993, p.104

2. A few scholars question whether the Portrait of Man in a Red Turban is actually a self-portrait. I have no doubt that it is based on unusual grounds: he wears a turban as artists did in the studio to keep paint off their hair and he is almost identical to the known portrait of Dürer's wife. Only artists seem to know that artists often paint portraits of their wives using their own proportions and features. 

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 04 Jan 2015. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.