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portrait of a carthusian (1446), petrus christus

Artist: Petrus Christus

Technique: Oil on wood

Dimensions: 29.2 x 21.6 cm

Year: 1446

Location of creation: Bruges

Current Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

Movements: Renaissance

Theme: Portrait

Subject: Carthusian man

painting summary

As an early work by Christus, he shows an influence of Jan van Eyck, although he applies novelties such as the correct use of linear perspective and the incorporation of one of the first examples of trompe-l’oeil.

general description

The panel shows a portrait of a member of the Carthusian Order, painted in a three-quarters position, looking directly at the observer. The man is positioned behind an illusory stone, where a fly is perched. The background in red is rendered in a three-dimensional manor, as the light comes in from multiple angles. The monk is turned to the right, looking over his left shoulder to stare at the viewer, thus creating an awkward diagonal posture. The proportions of the monk’s face are also exaggerated: the nose and eyes are purposely elongated. The overall effect is an exaggerated silhouette, a composition technique rarely found in Flemish primitives.

The man is positioned at an angle, in a room provided by two sources of light, one coming from the right and another, less strong, illuminating the lower left. Different theories have been put forward as to the identity of the character. The portrayed has no tonsure and wears a shaved beard around his mouth, meaning he cannot be a Carthusian monk, since they followed a rule of having a clean shave and to have a tonsure. He is therefore probably a lay brother, perhaps from the Charterhouse of Val-de-Grâce near Bruges, founded in 1318.

The portrait is seen as a masterpiece of early Flemish painting and an important step forward for the Trompe-l’oeil technique created with the fly. The unique background was also an innovative change from it’s neutral predecessors.

At this time there was an advanced society, with an economy based on luxury textiles and trade. The bourgeoisie liked luxury and art, in keeping with the development of its economic and intellectual interests. These works were intended for one’s own enjoyment, that is, they were to be had and worn at home or in their private chapels – “painting of devotion.” For this reason painting was considered an ideal technique, manageable, cheap and suitable for reflecting bourgeois tastes.

When the Portrait was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1944, the so called ‘monk’s’ head was encircled by a halo. Halos are extremely rare, however, in Early Flemish painting and so its authenticity was heavily discussed. As the halo distracts the spectator from examining the background, the Museum decided to remove it altogether. However, this doesn’t mean that Christus added the halo. The addition was probably made in Spain in the seventeenth century – in imitation of an Italian trend – when the painting entered the collection of one of the viceroys of Mallorca from the family of Oms. The false halo may have been added in an attempt to turn the unknown Carthusian into a Saint Bruno, founder of the Carthusian order. However, the met also removed multiple halos from his works, including in A Goldsmith in His Shop, Possibly Saint Eligius (1449).

content analysis

The fly adds to the optical illusion effect of the frame; the addition of this optical illusion to works of art is believed to have begun with Christus, in the 15th century. The Trompe-l’oeil technique consists of perspective tricks, creating an optical illusion that makes two-dimensional shapes appear to have three dimensions. Other artists at the time, such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling, began to apply this technique in their portraits too: Portrait of Isabella of Portugal (c. 1429) and Portrait of Maria Portinari (c. 1470-72).

The presence of the fly is generally regarded as a symbol of withering or death – critics are generally divided between two different interpretations of its use; many consider the fly to have a religious symbolism, with connotations of sin, corruption, death, etc. More recently, art historians are beginning to see these images as a professional calling card; it’s believed that as the fly appears near his signature, insinuating that it could be the referent of the creator of the work. The use of the halo acts as a symbol of holiness and saints, as the figure is also a monk, showing his closer connection to God.

The light scheme used is remarkable. The monk is bathed in intense light, contrasting his figure with the space he occupies. While this hard light is typical of contemporary Jan van Eyck, Christus’ addition of a second source of opposite light behind the monk marks this portrait as distinctive. The light on the left looks like a reflection from inside the space, but it still seems to be coming from an external source, perhaps from an unnoticed window. Resulting in the light coming from inside and outside the pictorial space, and the monk becomes the connecting point of the two, allowing Christus to employ a much fuller and richer spectrum of colours and shading as if it were a single source of lighting. This complex scheme is the reason why the work looks three-dimensional and realistic.

Three quarter profile portrait, a compositional structure greatly developed in the early renaissance. To model the monk’s right shoulder more than his left, Christus drew a side of the body closer to the viewer, adding more depth to the work.

In regards to the use of colour, the use of the color red in the background is both sumptuous and disturbing which is very rare in Flemish painting. The figure is dressed in white which contrasts greatly with the warm red background.

The portrait possesses a clear physical presence thanks to the balance of composition, lighting and the meticulous and realistic rendering of details (not the smallest hair from his head or even beard is neglected). The man addresses the spectator through his intense gaze. Christus uses the light to produce a chiaroscuro effect on his face which considerably accentuates the relief effect, compared to van Eyck’s portraits. By placing a fly in the center of the false bottom edge of his canvas, he created an illusory perspective in his portrait. With this gesture, the man’s presence extends outside of the pictorial space and into the viewer’s, through the fly. Van Eyck had previously applied this trick in his Portrait of Isabella of Portugal (c. 1429), for the way she puts her hand on the false stone parapet. The false frame bears an ornamental inscription in capital letters which appears as carved in the painted frame, reading: “PETRVS XPI ME FECIT” followed in smaller print by “A 1446”. The lighting of the main text matches the one in the rest of the portrait. The date, however, probably appeared on the painting’s original frame and was added to the panel when the frame was removed.

The work was highly innovative for representing the portrayed against a detailed background, as opposed to the previous flat ones. The man is also placed in a corner of a room; thus innovating on his predecessors and even professor, Jan van Eyck. The Trompe-l’oeil technique and multiple sources of light used were groundbreaking at the time, building on van Eyck’s teachings and working on the new form of optical illusion.

direct influences and connections

The work is made in the style of the primitive flamenco. Having trained at the school of Jan van Eyck, he prepared and trained in van Eyck’s studio room until the latter’s death. Eyck clearly had a very big influence on his art and this portrait in particular, as Eyck too had used the Trompe l’oeil technique with Portrait of Isabella of Portugal (c. 1429).

Within 15 years, both his works and Petrus himself became important figures and had an essential effect on all Flemish art. His colleague, Hans Memling, would also come to use the optical technique in his portraits, namely in the Portrait of Maria Portinari (c. 1470-72), where the lady is placed inside and slightly overlapping a painted frame in the composition. His style of portraiture had also a great impact on the works of Master of Prado Adoration of the Magi, in The Presentation in the Temple (c. 1470-1480).

painting details

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