Jan van Eyck - The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin

by Enrico Krause


An elderly man kneels with a serious look, his hands folded in prayer, in the left part of the picture. A book of hours lies open on a stool in front of him. In the right part of the picture, the Queen of Heaven Mary in a red cloak has settled down. On her lap squats the Christ Child, who gives his blessing to the kneeling man. An angel with a golden crown hovers above the Madonna.

This scene takes place in a high palace. This exposed location opens a wide view of the landscape in the background. There have been numerous attempts to identify this detailed landscape, animated with over 2000 figures. However, all attempts failed, as this is not a specific area, but a synthesis of various travel impressions.

Painted around 1437, this work by Jan van Eyck was commissioned by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor under Duke Philip the Good. Rolin, born in Autun in 1376 was not a popular man during his 40-year tenure. He was very intransigent in collecting taxes, unscrupulously accepted bribes. He cleverly diverted part of the princely income into his own pocket. X-rays show that van Eyck originally depicted Rolin with a large purse. Why van Eyck painted over this again, however, remains unclear.


Rolin was able to increase the sphere of influence of the province of Burgundy sixfold with the help of his diplomatic and strategic skills. The Great Kingdom of Burgundy stretched from the Swiss border to the North Sea, from Dijon to Bruges. This spatial expansion of Burgundy is represented here in the vast landscape.


The aging Rolin tried to buy his salvation with charity. In 1461, in his will, he donated to the church of "Our Lady" in Autun a silver statue of the Madonna weighing over seven kilos, together with a "golden crown made in La-Motte-Les-Arras".

The erected cross on the bridge in the middle part of the picture suggests that the painting is intended to commemorate the Treaty of Arras - Rolin's life's work. Under circumstances that have not been clarified to this day, the Burgundian duke Johann Ohnefurcht was killed on a bridge by the French heir to the throne or his friends in 1419. One of the atonements negotiated by the French was the erection of a cross at the scene of the murder, the bridge of Montreau.


Jan van Eyck - The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin

Oil on wood, c. 1437, 66 x 62cm, Musée du Louvre in Paris