One of the Most Intricate Paintings Ever Made

Jan Van Eyck’s outstanding Virgin and Child

Christopher P Jones
6 min readFeb 14, 2023

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Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1434–1436) by Jan van Eyck. Oil on panel. 124.5 × 160 cm. Groeningemuseum, Bruges, Belgium. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Let me draw your attention to two details in this almost unbelievable painting by the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck, made around 1436.

The painting shows the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child sitting on a large throne, flanked by two pillars where on top are shown a pair of carvings.

Details of ‘Madonna with Canon van der Paele’ (1434–1436) by Jan van Eyck. Oil on panel. 124.5 × 160 cm. Groeningemuseum, Bruges, Belgium. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Both carvings adopt a similar form: a robed man hunched over a prostrate creature, a man in one case, a lion in the other.

Before looking at their meaning, just take a moment to consider the virtuosity of these small painted figures, how for instance the sheen of the material catches the light with such convincing detail, and how the carvings blend so seamlessly with the wider setting of the picture, thereby giving them such a realistic form.

Here’s the full painting again, as a reminder of how the carved figures are but a small detail in a tremendously complex work.

Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1434–1436) by Jan van Eyck. Oil on panel. 124.5 × 160 cm. Groeningemuseum, Bruges, Belgium. Image source Wikimedia Commons

It goes without saying that these figures are not there out of chance; their symbolic meaning is an important constituent of the broader painting.

Details of ‘Madonna with Canon van der Paele’ (1434–1436) by Jan van Eyck. Oil on panel. 124.5 × 160 cm. Groeningemuseum, Bruges, Belgium. Image source Wikimedia Commons

The carving on the left depicts the moment when Cain killed his brother Abel, as told in the Book of Genesis. Cain is shown about to strike his brother with a club.

The carving on the right shows Samson fighting the lion with his bare hands, as recounted in the Book of Judges.

The purpose of pairing these biblical stories is to impart the idea that redemption from sin (Cain’s slaying his brother) can only be achieved through the power of faith (Samson’s faith in God helped him overpower the lion).

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