Colnaghi Foundation Journal 04 - Page 35

The impact of Jan van Eyck’s lost Lomellini Triptych and his Genoese patrons
It might therefore be more than a coincidence that
we know of two members of the Genoese merchant
community in Bruges who each owned a folding
triptych by Jan van Eyck. It is likely that one set
the example for the other: the choice of a triptych
format does not appear to have been common in
the 1430s. With the exception of the monumental
Ghent Altarpiece – not a triptych but very similar
to one given its folding wings – there are no other
triptychs by Van Eyck recorded.7 While it would seem
reasonable to assume that this unusual formal choice
was foremost determined by specific cultural practices
in or around Genoa, there is, in fact, little evidence
to support this idea as there are no Ligurian folding
triptychs known from the period.8
Only one of the two triptychs by Van Eyck, the
Dresden or Giustiniani Triptych, survives today
(fig. 1). Its central panel depicts the enthroned
Virgin and Child in an ecclesiastical interior; the
left wing represents the kneeling donor as supplicant
accompanied by the Archangel Michael, with Saint
Catherine shown on the opposite wing. When closed
an Annunciation en grisaille can be seen (see p. 30 and
fig. 7).9 The tiny format of Van Eyck’s folding triptych
suggests that transportability was of essence. The
miniature-like scale of the images also ensured that
the painter’s extraordinary technical, mimetic and
illusionistic skills were adequately showcased and had
a positive impact on the reputation of the donor. The
exquisite depictions by Van Eyck must have greatly
impressed viewers then just as much, if not more, than
they do today.
The format and size indicate that the triptych was
also intended for the patron’s individual devotion,
and was probably inspired by small devotional
The impact of Jan van Eyck’s lost Lomellini Triptych and his Genoese patrons
tabernacles, diptychs, triptychs, and polyptychs that
were produced in Tuscany and elsewhere in Italy
during the fourteenth century.10 These devotional
objects catered to the devotional needs of clergymen
as well as burghers, courtiers, and members of
princely families. They were among the commodities
sold by, among others, the Datini.11 Van Eyck must
have been acquainted with similar objects present
at the Burgundian Court. However, they provided
him with little more than a formal matrix which in
turn empowered him to implement – no doubt upon
the explicit request of the patron – his own pictorial
invention and thereby to set standards for the future.12
Van Eyck’s triptych presumably served as a travelling
altarpiece and might even have decorated a portable
altar, as its unambiguous sacramental symbolism
seems to imply.13 If that was the case, it would have
represented an ostentatious display of an important
privilege of the donor that he could only have
obtained by means of special permission from the
papal curia. A portable altar and the triptych would
have accompanied the donor wherever he went, and
would have allowed him to have masses celebrated
during his travels on land and, more importantly,
at sea.14 Small portable altars were certainly useful
for merchants who were regularly obliged to travel
on business on their own behalf or on behalf of their
business partners. The conspicuous display of the
donor’s coat of arms on the interior of the triptych –
as opposed to the exterior – testifies to the painting’s
privileged use.15
Although both coats of arms have been abraded and
were long thought to be overpainted, recent technical
examination has confirmed their authenticity, and
careful restoration has enhanced their appearance.16
Fig. 1 / Jan van Eyck, Triptych
of the Virgin and Child (the
'Dresden' or 'Giustiniani
Triptych'), 1437, oil on panel,
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie
Alte Meister.


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