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Six interesting facts about St Barbara

Jan van Eyck was a revolutionary innovator: to see that, you only have to visit the big exhibition of his work in Ghent, which is all over the media right now. There are two outstanding examples of his work, packed with innovating things, in the KMSKA collection as well: Madonna at the Fountain and St Barbara of Nicomedia. We take a closer look here at St Barbara.

The first autonomous drawing

Jan van Eyck was fond of a puzzle. He saw to it that art historians would spend years debating the key question about this work: is it a preliminary drawing or a finished work of art in its own right? Or an underdrawing turned into a finished drawing? Van Eyck and his contemporaries often used a metal stylus to set down their underdrawings on a preparatory layer consisting of ground bone or horn. The fine lines made by the stylus then served as a guide during the painting process. There are lines like this beneath parts of the tower and St Barbara: the beginnings of a painting, in other words, that wasn’t finished. Yet Van Eyck also continued to work on top of those lines using a pen and a paintbrush in a sketchy style not previously seen in that period and which anticipated Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. He signed the work too. Did his client drop out, leaving him to produce a pen drawing rather than a painting?

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No tower under her arm

According to her legend, Barbara was locked up in a tower by her father and so artists later pictured our Rapunzel avant la lettre with a tower under her arm. Jan van Eyck broke with that tradition: this Barbara is not shown with a miniature tower, but a real one, albeit still under construction. A symbol of the Catholic Church? Of a community coming together to achieve an important project? Either way, Barbara is already surrounded by a host of labourers and onlookers of a kind familiar from images of the Tower of Babel. Van Eyck will have been familiar with those through book illustrations, which he has translated here into a painting.

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Folds guide the eye

Jan van Eyck loved to set himself a challenge. The Virgin Mary and other saints were generally dressed in generic robes that don’t refer to any particular era in fashion. The Flemish Primitives had a penchant for gowns with endless folds that spilled over the floor. Yet even here, Van Eyck took it a step further. The folds of St Barbara’s dress occupy a third of the overall panel and guide the viewer’s eye to the young woman’s beautiful face and on towards the tower and sky.

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The moon

Jan van Eyck was one of the first painters to show the moon. If you wanted to depict the whole of reality as he did, this heavenly body needed to be there too. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has a diptych, the left-hand panel of which with the Crucifixion, is attributed to Van Eyck. It includes a morning moon. Medieval people associated the moon with death and so the symbolism of combining it with the crucified Christ is obvious. Could the moon in this image of St Barbara be a harbinger of her martyrdom too?

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Details

One thing we associate with Van Eyck is a profusion of details: the reflection of a window in a piece of jewellery, a droplet of liquid, a wart. These things stand out a little more clearly in full colour, provided you look closely enough – possibly using a magnifying glass. Do we find the same amount of detail in this more loosely brushed image of St Barbara? Absolutely. A ship, for instance, with crewmen just two millimetres tall. Or the doubt in the face of one of the conversing men. Seek and ye shall find: detail after detail and all manner of little stories within the bigger picture.

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Signature

Painting in the 15th century was a craft, a skill you learned from a master in his workshop. Signing a work simply wasn’t done. Unless you were Jan van Eyck, that is. And not just occasionally, either: he signed portraits, Madonnas and this St Barbara too, amongst other things. Barbara’s frame is inscribed with the words Joĥes de eyck me fecit: ‘Johannes van Eyck made me’. And he didn’t just tuck it away in some corner: he has used his famous illusionistic skills to make it look as though the letters have been chiselled in the middle of the ‘stone’ frame at the front. Debate about that signature continues: was he really so full of himself?

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One more little note:

The association between Barbara and her tower, that most impressive of edifices, made her the ideal patron saint for architects. Meanwhile, when Barbara’s own father beheaded her, he was struck by lightning. In spite of that – or perhaps because of it – she is also the saint to whom you pray for protection against lightning strikes. Is that why she seems so unruffled? Might she be secretly amused? A saintly little joke with which to finish...