In this ambitious book, Noa Turel argues for a new understanding of the original aims and perception of early Netherlandish painting. Rather than the phenomenal optical realism usually regarded as the signature accomplishment of Jan van Eyck and his contemporaries, it was a metaphor of animation that centrally defined their art. One hinge of the argument is fifteenth-century references to representations as “au vif,” which Turel reads not as from life, but to life. The Living Pictures of the title were not the stilled and flattened translations of the world that subsequent generations would learn to see in paintings. But how could pictures live? Recognizing essential difference between animation and metaphors of animation, Turel offers a methodologically expansive introduction to the central claim followed by five chapters exploring evidence within distinct concepts, each anchored by a single work.
The first chapter, “Drawing Miracles,” revolves around Rogier van der Weyden’s St. Luke Drawing the Virgin – an irresistible point of departure for a study of Painting’s First Century. Rather than regard this tableau of the miraculous portrait-sitting as a document of the semiotic “indexicality paradigm” that causally relates signs to referents, Turel proposes it as an example of an “animation paradigm” that preceded it. Luke’s studied effort as a draughtsman was not “a symptom of early preoccupation with objectivity,” but instead “effectively the opposite: a brilliant ode to the power of artistic mediation.” (22) Something similar is claimed for images of the Sudarium of Veronica, another metapictorial subject proliferating by the early fifteenth century. The case for a pre-indexical conception of such images about images also frames an intensive reading of “au vif” and cognate terms back and forth between the thirteenth and twentieth centuries. One of the book’s strengths is Turel’s exploration of animation metaphors across a wide variety of literary and historical texts by Jean de Meun, Guillaume de Machaut, Christine de Pizan, Jacques du Clerq, Olivier de la Marche, Jean Molinet, and Aliénor de Poitiers, among others.
The Ghent Altarpiece carries the next two chapters: closed in two (“Resuscitating Sculpture”) and open in three (“The Painter as Alchemist”). Like Rogier’s St. Luke, the work is understood not only as an instrument of liturgy, prayer, and prestige, but also as art theory. The polyptych exterior is, for example, unified by the animation paradigm – and more specifically a trope of vivified sculpture. The dedicatory statues of the two saints John between the patrons become a baseline from which degrees of life develop to the sides and above. Barely contained by tight niches, the prophets and sibyls in the top register resemble statues come to life. Between these enlivened figures above and immobile statues below, the Annunciation transpires in a half-saturated palette that can embody animation as a process. A visible rise of living color would parallel the metamorphic moment of incarnation itself. Along with theological and political dimensions ascribed to such layers of animation, Turel also points, here and throughout the book, to a “Promethean” impulse in the proud, life-giving power of these artists.
In Chapter Three, the opened Ghent Altarpiece becomes a laboratory of alchemical metaphor. The touchstone is a passage in the Roman de la Rose that deems alchemy a true art, a claim to which Turel sees Van Eyck responding in various ways. She focuses on an array of theories that later came to be called medical alchemy, which, because it strove to strengthen and prolong life, is dovetailed with both the Eyckian project of vivification and with Salvation itself – life everlasting. These streams of the argument flow through the fountain in the center of the Adoration of the Lamb, the water of which is seen as the source not only of life (as the inscription indicates), but also of the precious stones around it, which are linked to prime matter used for alchemical healing. Although early commentators did not mention alchemy in the altarpiece, Turel suggests that Hieronymus Bosch could have recognized it and developed a different kind of alchemical imagery in the Garden of Earthly Delights “as a dystopic counteradaptation of the famed polyptych.” (92) Another layer of this reading of the Ghent interior correlates the oil of Eyckian paint with the elixir of life. Amid these and other arcane and somewhat attenuated elements of the alchemical theory, a simpler claim is more plausible: that the panels’ extraordinary juxtaposition of real gold and painted gold “was indeed alchemy: turning literally dirt-cheap minerals into precious substances.” (94)
After the intensive focus on premier works by Rogier van der Weyden and the Van Eycks in the first three chapters, the paintings featured in the final chapters feel unexpected: the Redemption Triptych (Prado) sometimes attributed to Vrancke van der Stockt; and a Presentation in the Temple (National Gallery of Art) attributed to the Master of the Prado Adoration of the Magi. Both are associated in different ways with the workshop and followers of Rogier. As less famous works, their leading roles in these chapters reflect Turel’s laudable interest less in a new-look-at-old-masters than in tracing elusive aims and means of an industry transforming in these generations.
Chapter Four (“Painting in the Round”) asserts that the medium was an essentially spatial practice in the fifteenth century. The space in question is just as much the world around paintings as it is any fictive space they contain: “The conceptual horizon of imagery in all media was an immersive, indeed live viewing experience, and panel painters … were exceptionally well positioned to design actual and notional spaces that catered to that expectation.” (97) Turel’s focus more on painters than paintings is key. It has long been known that their work often included the coloring of statues. Less familiar and more intriguing here is an emphasis on the depth of painters’ agency in designing pageants in Burgundian cities. Working mainly from payment records for the lavish 1468 celebrations for the wedding of Charles the Bold to Margaret of York, Turel gathers evidence for the primary role of painters not only as craftsmen for the spectacles, but also as their composers and producers. From this, and from the accounts’ reference to the immense variety of three-dimensional banquet artifacts as ouvraiges de paintures, Turel reasons that “pageantry production was conceptualized as an integral part of the medium of painting in the fifteenth century.” (112)
The final chapter (“Making Histories”) explores early Netherlandish paintings as powerful instruments of history. Their encompassing realism – built, it is argued, from the animation paradigm – allows for calculated integrations of past and present. The Washington Presentation in the Temple, which invites donors to the event, is seen as a Gospel moment retooled to celebrate the birth of a child to a fifteenth-century family who have joined the Holy One in the Temple. The concept of such integrations is pursued through the rest of the chapter in different ways, including the cross-platform realm of ouvraiges de peintures. For this, the case study is the elaborate public staging of Philip the Handsome’s baptism in 1478, which is seen as having been designed to trigger politically resonant analogies with sacred tableaux in the minds of Bruges spectators. The final Netherlandish panel addressed in the book is the Arnolfini Portrait, where Van Eyck’s self-insertion prompts wider reflection on claims for authority and truth in Burgundian painting and literature.
These summaries are selective. Each chapter is built upon three or four distinct themes with sub-headings that helpfully mark tributaries of the larger argument. Not all of them are easy to follow. While modern analogies and terms (cryogenics, hyperspace) occasionally surface in ways that offer bracing perspective, many lines of inquiry are slowed by challenging language and multiplications of evidence that would be at home around a seminar table. In that setting I would expect spirited, productive conversation about Turel’s more complex and provocative hypotheses, such as the case for alchemy in the Ghent Altarpiece. The core idea of the book would be well served by a more concentrated marshalling of its historiographic and literary material, especially in return for discussion of more paintings. Specialists will think of many other Netherlandish works that could be fruitfully approached with the deep research and intriguing ideas that propel this study.
For me, the central claim of an animation paradigm that preceded a more familiar indexical one remains debatable – and usefully so. Such intentions and perceptions must have overlapped constantly in the minds of Van Eyck and his contemporaries. It was certainly the case, though, that one of the transformative achievements of these painters was the assertive opening of images not only to the light, surfaces, and spaces of the world, but also to its time and motion. This book is not the first to ponder the evolution of paintings as Art in the fifteenth century. But with an impressive array of suggestive connections across pictures, literature, spectacle, politics, and more, Noa Turel compels us to recognize that novel incorporations of life itself were intrinsic to the new ambitions of an old medium.