Early Netherlandish T-O Trickery
By Peter Barber
Rogier van der Weyden’s painting of St Luke painting the Virgin of about 1434 is one of the treasures of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. During a recent visit I realized it could also be interpreted as a symbolic medieval world map – with another, more familiar, diagrammatic world map in the painting for good measure!
Rogier van der Weyden, St. Luke Painting the Virgin, ca. 1434, oil and tempera on oak. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The work in situ.
Fifteenth century Flemish artists loved to play visual tricks: Robert Campin, for instance turned a wicker fire screen into a halo for the Virgin in a painting created at almost exactly the same time as Rogier’s and now in the National Gallery in London.
Follower of Robert Campin, the Virgin and Child before a Firescreen, ca. 1444. Oil on panel. © Copyright The National Gallery, London 2014
In Jan van Eyck’s painting of the Chancellor Rollin adoring the Virgin and Child, now in the Louvre, painted shortly before and which served as the model for Rogier van der Weyden, the windows above the main scene are square and, despite, their stained glass, seem not to have any special significance. When I looked at the Boston painting hanging on the wall in the museum my eye was immediately drawn to the circular window occupying the position of the square windows in the van Eyck. I would not have noticed it if I had viewed a scan or a conventional reproduction. Van der Weyden skillfully shows a horizontal and a vertical roof beam intersecting the window and turning it into a reversed TO map, with the vertical beam representing the Mediterranean, the horizontal beam the rivers Don and the Nile, with Africa to the left and Europe to the right of the vertical beam and with Asia occupying the lower half of the circle.
Rogier (detail showing the map)
Looking below the window, one sees that the structure of the painting, despite the exclusively Netherlandish scenes depicted in it, reflects that of the map. The river in the middle becomes the Mediterranean with ‘Africa’ to its left and ‘Europe’ to its right – and the scene containing the Virgin is placed – quite correctly – in Asia!
Rogier (detail showing the map and landscape)
Despite frequent assumptions to the contrary, medieval world maps continued to be very popular in fifteenth century Europe even after the Portuguese voyages from 1420 highlighted their geographical inadequacies. They are to be seen in Flemish illuminated manuscripts (for instance one of the British Library’s copies of Jean Corbechon’s Livre des proprietez des choses) , in the earliest printed books illustrating texts by Isidore of Seville and other late Roman encyclopedists and are mentioned in later inventories, such as those of the prints owned by Ferdinand Columbus or the goods of Henry VIII. TO maps continued to play a significant symbolic role in theological and philosophical contexts - as the maps in this painting of Rogier van der Weyden demonstrate.
[TO diagram from Etymologies] Augsburg: Gunther Zainer, 1472. woodblock. British Library IB.5441