Bret Rothstein’s fascinating new book is an exercise in sophisticated visual engagement. His basic premise is that certain early Netherlandish painters intellectually conceived and beautifully crafted their paintings because they expected select elite viewers to have a corresponding perspicacity. He considers the expectations and the limitations of sight as the foundation for this fictive discourse between artist and audience. At times, Rothstein’s explanations about the artists’ self-awareness of the limits of sight and of pictorial construction are challenging to follow. Peppering his text with words such as paradox, contradiction, however, and reflexive self-reference, he often explores one line of thought only to pull the reader suddenly in another and at times opposing direction. Yet the patient reader will benefit immensely from Rothstein’s close looking at and contemplation of some of the best known Flemish paintings.
The Introduction begins with a careful descriptive consideration of Petrus Christus’s A Goldsmith in His Shop . Rothstein charts how technical virtuosity permits the viewer to consider not only the scene but also the different expectations of the protagonists. The couple assesses the ring, the goldsmith assesses the couple, and the viewer assesses the three figures as well as the image reflected in the accompanying mirror. Rothstein wonders whether the emphasis on the visual simultaneously points out the limits of representation. The highly detailed goldsmith objects remain merely pictorial approximations, not the real things. Does an awareness of this boundary or limit relate to late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century writings by Jean Gerson, Geert Grote, or Jan van Ruusbroec, which stress the need to transcend the visual to higher levels of spiritual understanding? Here and in later chapters, Rothstein treats these texts as counterparts or analogs rather than direct sources for our artists.
Chapter 1 (“Picturing Vision”) uses Rogier van der Weyden’s Bladelin Triptych as an exemplum of the “complex dialectic between showing and seeing.” Rothstein argues that Van der Weyden offers a hierarchy of visual experience that “includes rich literal as well as metaphorical implications” (p. 45). In the center, direct corporeal sight of the Christ Child permits understanding. The sibyl and Magi on the wings see visions of Christ in the sky; that is, it is an image not the actuality of Christ that they experience. Emperor Augustus learns of Christ through the sibyl’s vision, so his is a “mediated echo” or an example of pure understanding that is unrelated to sight. The viewer, however, sees only a painted depiction, the product of the human hand, which is even further removed from the divine source. Rothstein thinks this practice parallels Ruusbroec’s approach to optical experience. “To see enables one to know, and knowledge leads one toward redemption. Corporeal sight, properly conceived and directed, is therefore a basic component of self-reform” (p. 32). Seeing leads to knowing and, in turn, knowing leads to understanding. If necessary, one begins with an image. Because of the power of sight, this image mentally recalled next leads us to a consideration of the meaning of what is imaged. Finally, this brings one to a deeper level of comprehension.
Chapter 2 (“The Imagination of Imagelessness”) argues that the artists’ concern with showing and seeing is matched by a self-awareness on the viewers’ part. In van Eyck’s Virgin and Child with Joris van der Paele , the canon’s gaze is unfocused. Indeed, he holds rather than wears his eye glasses. Rothstein suggests that in his visionary state Van der Paele has departed from sensory experience altogether. While this observation has been made by others, he claims the elite viewer (Van der Paele and his peers) would have recognized that the canon had transcended the allure of the physical or material world, which is so exquisitely presented by Van Eyck, for the “ideal of imageless understanding.” The viewer should aspire to reach the same more advanced spiritual level. Rothstein notes that this painting operates as a “paradoxically self-effacing bridge between image and understanding.” He finds his textual corollaries in the writings of Gerson and Ruusbroec who champion imageless devotion. A careful viewer would recognize the punning reference and the limits of artifice in Van Eyck’s presumed self-portrait, reflected in St. George’s armor; that is, the “painter (schilder ) [portrayed] atop an illusory shield (schild )” (p. 76). Although the author discusses what he sees as “similar subversions of the persuasiveness of naturalism” in pictures by Van Eyck, Christus, and Van der Goes, I am less convinced by his claims for a clear intentionality by these artists. I also wonder whether he credits viewers with far more sophisticated visual literacy than we might expect in the fifteenth century. Or put differently, I am not sure most well-educated viewers of a Van Eyck or a Christus painting were seeking its visual insufficiency rather than its visual amplitude.
Chapter 3 (“The Devotional Image as Social Ornament”) considers how Van Eyck’s Rolin Madonna might use the “act of devotional practice as a mechanism for affirming or enhancing their social status” (p. 137). Drawing upon Rolin’s often cited foundation charter for the H™tel Dieu in Beaune, with its stated desire “by means of a favorable transaction to exchange celestial goods for temporal ones É and the ephemera that these are for things eternal” (p. 135), Rothstein reads Van Eyck’s painting as a form of negotiation between the earthly and the spiritual. He expresses surprise at the boldness of the painting since its directness seems contrary to an object for private meditation. Yet if this painting was designed eventually to serve as an epitaph, the flattering and most worldly portrayal of Rolin is hardly surprising. I find the suggestion (p. 99) that the composition expresses Rolin’s sense of class anxiety due to the precariousness of his position at the Burgundian court to be rather ahistorical. His position as chancellor was challenged seriously only a decade or more later. Rothstein’s idea that “earthly ambition is part of truly noble spirituality” needs to be developed much more to be convincing within this context. Is Rolin ruminating over a spiritual text, as Rothstein suggests, or being presented more generically as a pious man in prayer at his prie-dieu? In fact, would it have made a world of difference, Gerson’s writings not withstanding, to a fifteenth-century viewer?
Chapter 4 (“Senses of Painterly Strength”) grapples with the fundamental issue of painterly intention, one that is often difficult to resolve centuries after the fact. Rothstein’s basic theme is that these leading Netherlandish artists approached “the act of painting as a process of cultivating reflexive visual experience” (p. 138). He provides a fascinating reading of A Goldsmith in His Shop as a statement of Christus’s social and artistic ambition. Other suggestions are less convincing. For example, he explains the inclusion of the triple window reflected on the globe beneath Christ’s feet in the Last Judgment Altarpiece in Beaune as a clear and conscious reference to Van Eyck’sRolin Madonna and Van der Weyden’s St. Luke Drawing the Virgin and Child . Yet clear to whom? Is this little detail precise enough to inspire recognition by Rolin? The author assumes Van der Weyden “entered into a subtle (intervisual) dialogue with his patron. É Above all else, the fact of this dialogue tells us that, in the realm of the senses at least, the artist could momentarily enjoy equivalence with someone of a more elevated social and intellectual station” (p. 172). Rothstein also conjectures this detail afforded Van der Weyden the chance to participate in a separate dialogue with Van Eyck. The author’s discussion of these painters engaging in a kind of proto-paragone is intriguing if in need of further amplification. Having a fuller understanding of the status of contemporary Netherlandish sculptors and goldsmiths might make this discussion more convincing.
In the Epilogue (“Notes on the Rise of Visual Skill”) Rothstein introduces wordplay, the fourteenth and fifteenth century literary practice of verbal gamesmanship linking writer and reader. This takes the form of acrostics, puns, anagrams, and the like. The insightful reader is rewarded for his or her intellectual skills, literally for the virtuosity of one’s ability to read. Rothstein posits that this practice offers a literary counterpart to the sorts of reflexive visual games he has described in a few celebrated early Netherlandish paintings. I find this suggestion quite intriguing though I wish the author had raised this topic at the beginning of his book rather than in the last few pages. Rothstein concludes with the remark, “To paint well is to demand that the viewer observe equally well” (p. 188). Regardless of whether or not I agree with all of his suggestions, Rothstein rewards his patient reader with an intellectual tour-de-force that makes us ponder more deeply the possible intentions of these magnificent painters.
Jeffrey Chipps Smith
University of Texas at Austin