The viewers in the Ghent Altar Piece
The Viewers in the Ghent Altar Piece
Inigo Bocken 2010Unpublished
The viewers in the Ghent Altar Piece Brussels, VLAC-conference Material and Vision, 25th of November 2010.
Again and again in the works of Jan Van Eyck, there can be found small and almost invisible figures, looking at the painted scenery. Although these figures are generally not the main actors on the scene, they do take part in the event – sometimes in a somewhat irritating way. It is mostly not very clear what these viewers are doing, and who they are. The most famous ones are, without any doubt, the small figures in the mirror of the Arnolfini-portray [IMAGE 1]. It is discussed already thousand times whether they are witnesses of a wedding, or do we see the painter and his assistant at work, who are looking to us from far beyond the surface of the image, through the mirror in the centre of the scenery? [IMAGE 2] Perhaps it is exaggerated when the art historian Yvonne Yiu tells us that it is the eye of the infinite God, which we see trough the mirror – nevertheless, what we see is quite mysterious, and at least we can say that Van Eyck succeeded in challenging generations of scholars and viewers to look deep into the centre of his painting, and to start reflecting about the question what it means to be the viewer of a painting, what it means to make paintings and to look at them.
In this contribution I do not want to give an answer to this question. I referred to the Arnolfini Wedding for it is only one although very remarkable examples, of the way Van Eyck brings the viewer into the painting itself. We do not know what these figures are doing exactly, what we do know, is that they are viewing and we got some idea of what they see, when they see. Whether they are passive viewer or active painter – as we can see clearly in the Arnolfini – it is the act of seeing which is at stake here. The painter is playing a game with us, viewers of the painting, a game which shows us that the scenery is actually seen by us. And as such, we, viewers, are guided into the centre of the painted scenery, the more we are looking what is going on here. We are challenged to take position, to reflect about our perspective.
There has been already a lot of discussions on the meaning of the Arnolfini Wedding. However, the viewers in the Arnolfini portray are by far not the only of their kind in the work of Van Eyck.
Less central, although unavoidable present, we see appearing in the Van der Paele on the shield of Saint Georges a figure in such a subtle way, that it was only discovered some decades ago: it is the silhouette of a viewer – or perhaps that of the painter, who is at the end a viewer too [Image 3]. He is present in an almost invisible way, although he is there, and once we have seen him, we are not able anymore not to see him anymore – once we have seen this figure we cannot avoid the question on the relation between what has been seen and the one who sees.
In the painting of Chancellor Rolin, they are there in a prominent way, our viewers. They are present again in the centre of the painting. They – or at least one of them – are looking into the immense – almost in infinity developing landscape, and they have the same direction of seeing as we, the viewers of the painting. There is a path on the floor, guiding to those two small figures, a path inviting the viewer of the painter, to participate in a direct and immediate way in the sacred events, painted here. By way of the central position of the viewer, the border between the world of the image and the world of the actual viewers becomes transparent. The imaginary world is at the same time our world. The reality of the image seems to become perfect only by the presence of the viewers.
In this contribution I want to show that the presence of viewers in Van Eyck’s painting is not accidental at all – they tell us something about the way Van Eyck is reflecting in his paintings on the human abilities to see, they show us how Van Eyck is exploring the possibilities and limits of human vision, searching the limits of seeing, the invisible. ‘Als ich can’, as much as I can, showing the border between what can be seen and what is invisible. For it is the explicit presence of a viewer, which reminds us that our seeing always is mediated – it is us we are seeing, and there are always other ways of seeing. The painter however is able to show that what we see, is always that what is seen by human eyes. I want to elaborate this idea, by referring to the main – or at least the biggest – work of Jan Van Eyck, the Ghent Altar Piece. [IMAGE…]
For also here we find them back, our viewers, although it is (as in the Van der Paele) very difficult to see them, they are almost invisible for the superficial viewer, nevertheless – they are there. And from the moment on, we discover them, we cannot avoid the question anymore why they are there. For as we now, in the work of Van Eyck, no detail is painted ‘by accident’, just like that, without having thought about it. Jan Van Eyck is the master of the detail, and if we discover a disquieting scene, we almost can be sure, that we are confronted with one of his famous riddles, as Marc de Mey mentioned in an earlier article.
We find the almost invisible viewers at the outside panel of the Ghent Altar Piece, which can be seen in its closed position [IMAGE]. Here, we are witnesses of an annunciation scenery, the starting point of the sacred history, the moment in which Mary becomes aware of her unique historical role as bearer of future salvation of mankind. The event of which we are the witnesses, is nothing less than the turning point in the history of mankind, however, the world seems to be not aware of it: the panel is characterized by a fundamental contrast between the inside event of annunciation and the outside world, the town with all its rumor, people walking around and talking about the things of the world. From within this inner, divine event of annunciation Van Eyck offers us a perspective on the outside world, which can be seen through the window, and which is not at all in the centre of the attention of the actors within the room.
Exactly at the vanishing point in the shadow of a tower at the end of the street, we are able to see three figures, who are staying there, somewhat in a distance from the other people in the town. They belong to the earthly town, but at the same time, they are not totally absorbed by the multitude, they seem to have other attentions as the most people in the street. The street life is full of light of the sun, but our viewers seem to be the only ones, who are focused on the source of the light, which is not visible in the painting. They are seeing something which escapes the attention of the other people, and which we, viewers of the painting, are not able to see. They see, in other words, the invisible, the source of the light, which is dispersed everywhere in the scenery – and as we see later on – everywhere in the painting. The act of seeing the invisible, which Van Eyck presents us here, therefore, seems to connect two different worlds: the seeing actors are part of the outside world, which can be seen through the window – the outside world with all its everyday life events. However, Van Eyck shows clearly that these figures are looking to something above this everyday life events. It is as if they have a subtle awareness of something not belonging to the world of the painted scenery, something which does not belong to the image we are confronted with. When these figures are actually viewers, they literally see the invisible, that which is outside the framework of the image. Are they perhaps aware of the unique divine event, the annunciation of future salvation, which is taking place very near, in the humble and somewhat narrow room at the front of the painting?
At least they seem to represent an interruption of the everyday life events, we are able to see and as such they may refer to the contrast between the inner world of the room and the outside world of the street. In the work of Leonbattista Alberti, contemporary of Jan Van Eyck, the window is a main metaphor – and perhaps even more than that – for the separation of painted reality and human viewer. Here, in the Ghent Altar Piece, the window seems to refer to a separation between two worlds, however in a somewhat different direction. Here in the Annunciation Scenery, the window is not only representing the separation of the divine and the everyday world, but seems to announce the possibility of its removal. From within the divine space – the Annunciation Room - we are able to see the viewers, who are seeing the invisible in one way or another, under the conditions of everyday life. It is only by opening the Altar, that we see the fullness of seeing with all its possibilities and dynamics, towards its limit – the divine gaze at the upper side of the altar. Here in the inner side of the Altar, the separation between the world of the viewer and the sacred events is dissolved, we even can see God here from face to face. We are seeing here the seeing of God. Later on in my paper I will explain this last point – the fact that we are able to see God from face to face – somewhat more, for now, it is enough to see the contrast between the closed and opened polyptique.
These considerations are not self-evident. Indeed, one cannot deny that the viewers at the front of the Ghent Altar Piece play a somewhat marginal role. They are not actors of the divine event, and the same can be said about their place in the streetlife. Nevertheless, they are there. And one cannot avoid to ask why Van Eyck again and again painted such irritating figures, seeing figures who are entering the stage of the event.
As I said already, the presence of these figures is irritating in the best sense of the word – for they effects a reflection on the relation between image and viewer of the image. In the following I want to show that this attention for the role of the viewer as it can be found in the paintings of Van Eyck, is not some idiosyncratic or private interest of this painter, but is connected with a more general cultural and epistemological transformation, characterized by an increasing attention for the active role of the viewer.
There are many lines to develop the idea of the changing role of the viewer in 15th Century – there are the developments in optical science, as we can read in Alberti’s De picture, but we can think on the increasing interest for theatre plays in religious life (mystery plays), there is the increasing fascination for the vera icon, the true image. Recent research, e.g. the works of Norbert Schnitzler, shows the fascination for the different ways of looking of the faithful towards the sacred. In my paper I want to reduce myself to a reference to the work of Nicholas of Cusa, philosopher and politician contemporary of Van Eyck and working in the same cultural environment as the painter (who was, as we know, diplomat and legate, as such a colleague of Cusanus). In the work of Cusanus, painting and imaginative thinking play a central role and as well as Van Eyck, he stresses the role of the viewer of images again and again. Shortly, one can say that in the view of Cusanus, the ultimate divine order of reality (ordo) cannot be conceptualized or reflected without taking into account the role of those who are seeing this order – the observer of the order. In Cusanus, the classical scientific ideal of theoria – which was the main paradigm of all knowing and acting since Aristotle – has become transformed. For Cusanus is very well aware – as we can read in his work Compendium – that we, human beings are not able to focus our knowledge directly towards divine truth, and therefore we have to occupy in the first place (and exclusively) with the different ways human beings attempt to express this divine reality.
There are a lot of reasons to refer to Cusanus when one attempts to understand the painting of Van Eyck. Being a philosopher, Cusanus succeeds in capturing and expressing the ideas of his time – which is the time of Van Eyck. Cusanus is in many ways the philosopher – respectively the theologian – of visual experience, which is at the centre of his theoretical considerations. Again and again he refers to the most recent developments in the painting of his time, in order to explain the fundamental structures of knowledge and reality. There seems to be no other way to understand the human mind as well as scientific rationality than by referring to visual experiences. There are however more historical reasons. Recently, Wolfgang Schneider – who will give the next paper – was able to show in his VLAC-research that we have to suppose quite close contacts between Jan Van Eyck and Nicholas of Cusa. With his discoveries, Wolfgang Schneider offered us a key to solve a question often discussed in art history and history of spirituality, concerning the philosophical, scientific and spiritual background of Jan Van Eyck. I think discoveries like these of Wolfgang Schneider show the important role of centres like VLAC. A third line leading to the connection between Cusanus and Van Eyck, is the fact that they both belong to the broader horizon of the religious reform movement of the devotion moderna. This movement had an almost immense expansion at the time and its cultural influence hardly can be overestimated. Its central idea, that of the imitatio Christi, is certainly an idea which played in the mind both of Cusanus and Van Eyck. The idea of imitatio Christi contains not only a superficial ideal for a pious life, but refers, as we will see, to the active role of those who claim to live the life of the Gospel, the active rol of the viewer, who wants to become an image of God her- or himself.
The reference to the work of Cusanus therefore will show primarily common cultural and scientific forms of thinking, reflected in the paintings of Van Eyck. It will help us to understand the viewers against the background of important paradigmatic shifts in the culture of the 15th Century – a common pattern of thought, becoming manifest in different ways, though with important common similarities – and one of the most remarkable similarities consists in the central meaning of human visual perception.
As I mentioned earlier, both Cusanus and Van Eyck were both living and working in the burgundian regions – where they had to have met each other. Besides, both were confronted with the influences of the religious reform movement devotio moderna and had in one way or another to deal with it. Recent research has shown enough to say that both Van Eyck and Cusanus were, although not active participants in the common life of the brethren, personally involved in circles closely connected to it.
Therefore it is not without unimportance to sketch some central motives of this religious reform movement.
Without any doubt, there is an historical connection between the immense success of the brethren- and sister houses on the one hand, and the strong development of the cities in the Netherlands of the 15th Century on the other. The fundamental sociological transformations at the end of the Middle Ages, characterized by an increasing self-consciousness of the free citizen, had also far reaching consequences for the new religious consciousness. Until that time, this consciousness was dominated by a monastic, hierarchical interpretation of society. The urban character of the devotio moderna becomes manifest in its awareness of the inaccessibility of divine hierarchical order for the human mind. Urban life consists social flexibility – this means that a craftsman was able to become professor, or the son of a wine-seller could become cardinal.
The movement was motivated by a model of monastic life for the citizen. The urban character of this reform movement initiated by Geert Groote had its implications for its attitude towards the hierarchical interpretation of reality. For in the view of its main spiritual authors, like Thomas à Kempis, the divine hierarchy never can be articulated by human ideas. It is in the practice of daily life that inner reform has to take place. The brothers and sisters of common life had to discover the image of God within themselves – imitatio Christi – by living their humble active life and performing their reform towards Christ in daily duties and work. Geert Groote and Thomas à Kempis were very well aware of the fact that human beings never can leave the domain of human action, which is the field in which God’s action becomes apparent. Inspired by nominalist theology, the faithful had in this view the task to discover the active power of God within the human order of action, in its most concrete form. Theology is not so important, it is even an activity motivated by personal vanity distracting from the real goals in life, the direct realization of the Gospel in concrete life – becoming a real image – vera icon – of the divine within the material world, and by way of the material world.
As Norbert Schneider argued recently in a very convincing way, this nominalistic way of thinking was influential not only in regard to the development of the devotion moderna, but played also an important role in the philosophy of Nicholas of Cusa as well as in the innovative art of Jan Van Eyck. All theories of sign, called to be nominalistic depart from the observation that general ideas of the human mind cannot be seen anymore as an expression of the divine order. The interruption of this relation, opens a large field of human creativity and action – even the most abstract and sophisticated signs are against the background of the nominalistic paradigm to be seen as part of human action, and therefore connected with sensual experience and physical reality. In the view of Norbert Schneider both Van Eyck and Cusanus can be understood against the background of this physicalistic theory of sign, connected with an increasing awareness of the primacy of action. And the same can be said in the case of the devotion moderna. For in this tradition too, the invisible divine reality only can be represented in the concrete practical action of the faithful, the one who is observing the divine, has to become an image of God – as it becomes manifest in the ideal of imitation of Christ. The vision of God only can be realized by the concrete physical action of vision, the invisible God only can become visible in the ways of life of the brethren and sister of common life.
It is in this tradition, or at least in his critical reception of this tradition, that Nicholas of Cusa – Cusanus – develops this observation further in his famous work De visione Dei, written only some years after the finishing of the Ghent Altar Piece.
The scenery of the De visione Dei may be well known. The book is written on behalf of the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Tegernsee, who asked the cardinal for help in their spiritual search. They receive a painting, an omnivoyant portrait, whose look follows the viewer of the painting. It is interesting that Cusanus refers here in the text to a self-portrait of the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden, which was in the town hall of Brussels in the time of Cusanus. This reference not only attests to the awareness of Cusanus of the newest developments in the visual arts of his time, but also shows how he is of the opinion that the vision of God – or theoria – can be found within actual cultural and human practices. In classical tradition since Plato, the ideal of theoria was reserved only for those who were free from earthly duties and cares. Human action was in a way an obstacle for the action of God, leading the soul to its original state. The reference to a work of art made by human hands – not an acheiropoieton – as the context in which the vision of God can be realized, is significant for a tendency present in the whole of Cusanus’ work. Cusanus expresses this tendency himself in Idiota de sapientia and De apice theoriae, where he describes how in an earlier time he was searching for the divine truth and wisdom in dark and remote rooms. But “now” he realizes that, with the psalmists words, “wisdom is proclaiming everywhere in the streets.” (clamat in plateis). Cusanus seems to be convinced that the monks of Tegernsee are able to reach theoria, the vision of God, within the time of this earthly life, this means within the universe of their daily experience.
Cusanus develops a scene of theatre, to which the monks are invited to participate. It is a kind of experiment, which only makes sense if the reader, as the viewer, really becomes part of it in an active way. The experiment is a practice (praxis), in which – in the words of the French historian and philosopher Michel de Certeau – the act enables the words. The vision of God cannot be achieved through theoretical efforts, but only inasmuch as the reader/viewer of the painting himself follows the path which is shown by Cusanus. Whoever enters this scenic space understands how he will be able to see the invisible divine light. The monk has to move from the right to the left and vice versa around the portrait, getting the impression that it has been made only for him and that he is in the center of the attention of the gaze. The more the viewer explores this way of seeing, the more he feels he is confirmed in his impression that he is at the center.
The amazement of the viewer on the circle around the portrait is intensified further when his brother in faith, performing the same experiment, reports the same experience. The fact that the second monk, coming from the opposite direction, has the same experience, is incomprehensible for the first one. He cannot understand this, unless he believes what his colleague on the circle around the portray is telling him – that he is in the center of the attention as well. “And so, through the disclosure of the respondent he will come to know that that face does not desert anyone who is moving—not even those who are moving in opposite directions.” He discovers that what he sees is only his way of seeing, from a concrete, determined point of view. He is not at the center at all; his way of seeing is only one of many ways of seeing. The point of the experiment, however, is that Cusanus does not see any reason to deny the truth of this concrete way of seeing – this perspective. Both perspectives are true. It is only within his concrete way of seeing that the viewer understands that it is impossible to see perfectly and fully what he sees. As it is the case in the Ghent Altar Piece, when we see the viewers, we see something we do not see – we see in other words the invisible, and in the view of Cusanus, this paradox is one of the main characteristics of all visual perception. Contrary to the main spiritual tradition since Plato and Neoplatonism, for Cusanus even spiritual vision is not a special kind of mental vision (theoria), it belongs to the possibilities of physical perception itself. The vision of God consists in the awareness of the paradoxes within our physical perception.
Furthermore, the viewer understands why he is not able to see the portray as it is in itself. For it is impossible to take a point of view other than his own. In De docta ignorantia Cusanus stresses that even if we would try another thousand years to imitate the position of the other, we never will achieve it. We may be tied to our own perspective, but we are not its prisoners. The fact of being bound to our own concrete way of seeing and experiencing is, in the view of Cusanus, not the expression of a tragic situation at all. For it is only from within this perspective that we are able to understand that there are other ways of seeing and understanding. There always will be perspectives that we do not immediately grasp. However, this knowledge opens the possibility of seeing other perspectives. A human being is able to move in several directions in order to collect more points of view, though he only is able to integrate these within his own way of seeing. Therefore, Cusanus is able to quote in the sixth chapter of De visione Dei the critical argument of the Greek philosopher Xenophanes. There he says that God is for the lion a lion, for the ox an ox, for the young man he appears as a young man, for the old man like an older man. It is interesting and also important that Cusanus quotes here Xenophanes - a citation that, as far as I know, is not found in any other medieval text. For Cusanus, the argument gets a new meaning: it does not demonstrate the anthropomorphic way of religious thinking, as was the case in Xenophanes. Rather, it stresses the unavoidable character of human practices, in this case the practice of making images (which is one of the themes of the book, as the reference to van der Weyden may have shown already). In the view of Cusanus, the unavoidable character of images gives reason to take serious concrete human practices. Even the most abstract metaphysical insights and ideas are bound to the practical human imagination. Therefore, the vision of God necessarily takes place within the context of human acting and practice.
The divine truth remains invisible, but it is an invisibility working within the visible. She would become visible if human beings could see all perspectives at once, which is impossible. Nevertheless this impossibility belongs to the possibilities of human vision. And besides, this impossibility learns something fundamental about the nature of the divine, being the infinite whole of perspectives. The impossibility to grasp all these perspectives at once, does not exclude the perspective of the human viewer from the whole of perspectives, being thought by Cusanus as a circle with an infinite number of angles. The perspective of the human viewer is actually taking part of the infinity of perspectives of the divine vision, although this divine vision never can be ‘seen’ except through one concrete perspective. Divine vision becomes manifest only by way of an interruption of human vision. And for Cusanus it is clear, every visual perception is characterised by this experience of interruption. The invisible divine truth in the view of De visione Dei appears within the seeing of the senses already as we become conscious of the paradoxes of visual experience itself. The meeting with the other monk on the line – the other viewer – shows us that we can see what we see only if we could see all possible ways of seeing. We only see what we see, if we were able to see it from all possible perspectives. Therefore, we see in fact something we cannot see.
The point of this argument is that this “invisible” truth is not separated from the process of visual seeing. Far more, it is a constitutive part of it, and vice versa.
In everything we see, we are able to realize that there are always more ways of seeing than we can grasp. Again and again, Cusanus gives examples of these kinds of vanishing points within visual perception. What is interesting here is the phenomenological way Cusanus is arguing when he shows that our direct way of seeing – our perspective – has been interrupted in the words of Michel de Certeau“suddenly.”. The act of perceiving itself confronts us with the limits of our perception. The confrontation with these limits is interpreted by Cusanus as an appeal to see in a new way. In De visione Dei, the viewer sees “suddenly” that he is the one who is viewed himself. In his perspective there appears a vanishing point, which shows him the gaze of the other.
The same is true for the divine, which only can be imagined and seen through human images, as the reference to Xenophanes has already shown clearly. In other words, we have to imagine before it is possible to interrupt the direct perception of the image we are making. It is not by accident that Cusanus refers to the painting practices of his time. Van der Weyden is named explicitly, but it is obvious to think here on the painting of Jan Van Eyck, who in all his works is playing with this kind of riddle, -- interrupting and interrupted perspectives—in order to open space for the real light, the light of God. The perspectives are broken up so that they can become themselves images of God, as we saw in the presence of the viewers in the painting. In this regard, against the background of cusa’s visual philosophy, one can see the small viewers in the Ghent Altar Piece in contrast to the omnivoyant viewer, who is God-Father, respectively Christ in the open panel. As the portray in De visione Dei God is painted here in a frontal position, so that His eyes are following the viewer of the Altar.
For Cusanus, the unavoidable presence of the viewer and his perspective is – contrary to the dominating interpretation – not in the first place expression of an increasing awareness of the subject. It refers far more to the original character of concrete visual experience and its limits and possibilities. In later works of Cusanus, this way of arguing returns in the presence of precious stones. Again the awareness of Cusanus for the ambiguity of the viewer and the seen reality develops in reference to two later works, in which precious stones play a remarkable role.
There is first of all De beryllo, written in 1458The beryl was in the time of Cusanus an optical auxiliary for the reading of books. Here Cusanus understands his own philosophy of the coincidence of opposites as a kind of ‘beryl’ – later one, one would say ‘glasses’ – through which the reader is able to discover the essence of truth. Coincidentia oppositorum The coincidence of opposites can be found everywhere; we only have to look in a specific way. In other words: the coincidence of opposites is not only the truth itself, but it is also, and primarily, a way to see reality in a divine way. It is only in this way that we are able to see the interruptions of the divine within the proportional field of perception. In De beryllo, the precious stone is mainly used in a metaphorical way: it refers to the method Cusanus developed earlier in his work. By analyzing this method, Cusanus becomes aware of the fact that we are able to find the truth of coincidence of opposites only by actual seeing. The truth seen through the glasses can never be separated from the glasses. They are in a sense more akin to mirrors, in which the relation between the viewer and perceived reality appear at the same time. It is exactly this moment of ‘mirroring’, which is elaborated in a later writing (1462), the De li non-aliud (On Not-Other). There Cusanus describes the visual experience of a ruby (carbunculus). Again Cusanus refers to the process of seeing, but seems to stress more the objective side of perception, the power of glowing and lightening, which is typical of the carbunculus, Cusanus describes in this book. In itself the light would be invisible to the sense of sight. “ Therefore the light which glows in the stone conveys to the light which is in the eye what is visible regarding the stone.
The activity of the viewer seems here to have vanished. Further on, however, Cusanus stresses the necessity of the activity of the viewer in order to discern the essence of a ruby from that of a magnet or a lion:
However, this light is discerned by the intellect, which distinguishes it antecedently. Surely, the intellect sees that the substance of the carbuncle is not other than the substance of the carbuncle. And so, it sees that the substance is other than every substance of what is not a carbuncle. The intellect witnesses this fact in different operations which follow from the power of the carbuncle’s substance but not from [the power] of any other thing’s [substance]. Therefore, the intellect sees that the substantial light is distinct in all visible things.
Thus, the viewer, with his sensitive, rational and intellectual capacities, belongs to the ‘objectivity’ of the precious stone. It is only by ‘looking sharply’ that we are able to see this. There is a correlation between the way we see the degrees of glow and light and the original, invisible light. The viewer is part of this dynamic process as are the precious stones.
Therefore, it is the process of experience that is the crucial issue for Nicholas. As became clear in the experiment of De visione Dei, there is always a viewer involved who is a part of the process. The viewer is not only a receptive being, but plays an active role, for he belongs to the visible world himself. He has to do something, e.g. to walk around the portrait and to see in his own way, through his own glasses. It is only inasmuch as the viewer really is actively seeing, that his vision can be ‘interrupted’ suddenly, in an instantaneous way. It is at least thinkable that Cusanus was inspired by the Flemish painters of his time. He refers to the game Rogier van der Weyden is playing with his viewers. But also in the works of Jan Van Eyck one can find several places where the expected way of seeing is broken up in order to increase the glance of reality, a proportion which is more comprehensive than visual perception and thinking is able to perceive. Again, we find the presence of the viewer within the visible world itself, as the knower belongs to the world of knowable proportions.
The question however, whether Cusanus knew the works of Van Eyck or not, is not at stake here. What I wanted to make clear is the fact that the visual theories of knowledge of Cusanus can function as a kind of grammar in order to read the painting of Van Eyck as a kind of pictorial treatise, not in a metaphorical way, but by showing the power of light and human visual experience. In Cusa’s theory, the vision becomes realised exclusively within the material of the world. The precious stones are some of the examples which can show us the different layers of visual experience, connecting the viewer with reality, even divine reality.
Against the background of Cusa’s theory of vision, Jan Van Eyck’s awareness of the material qualities of precious stones, can be seen as the awareness of the power of human vision and perception. He shows us that we, viewers, are able to see more than we actually see, that we are able to see the invisible within the visible material world itself.
In the logic of the devotio moderna, with whom Jan Van Eyck was familiar, the vision of God can be realised only in a very concrete manner, in the way we are looking to the world. In his Soliloquium, Thomas a Kempis describes how the pious searcher of God, distressed by the darkness of the world, can found consolation by making images of the heavenly Jerusalem. These images are presenting some of the light of God already in this world, and as Thomas stresses, in an immediate way. The work must have been written around 1430, and contains almost one to one the description of the way Van Eyck is interpreting the book of Apocalyps in the open panel. It is the role of these images of consolation, to show that the vision of God is, although only partial, is a real, concrete vision, a way to deal with the material conditions of this world. The technical achievements of Van Eyck should not be reduced to this pious ideal, nevertheless, they cannot be isolated from it. Van Eyck, Cusanus and Thomas are challenging us to look as carefully as possible to what we, viewers, in fact are seeing. Perhaps they can learn us, that we, viewers of the painting are present within the reality of the painted scenery itsel.