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Disguised Symbolism as Enactive Symbolism in Van Eyck's Paintings

John L. Ward
Artibus et Historiae
Vol. 15, No. 29 (1994), pp. 9-53
Published by: IRSA s.c.
DOI: 10.2307/1483484
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1483484
Page Count: 45
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Disguised Symbolism as Enactive Symbolism in Van Eyck's Paintings
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Abstract

In addition to making use of easily recognized symbols, in six of his most important paintings Van Eyck devised symbols to be discovered only during the process of prolonged meditation, with the intention of stimulating an experience of mystic revelation. This symbolism was conceived primarily in terms of visual interactions that provide the means for its disguise and, paradoxically, offer the best proof of its presence through the coherence and expressive power they contribute. The argument is made that in six of Van Eyck's most important pictures certain configurations compel the viewer who notices them to regard them either as deliberately expressive symbolic interactions or else as the unintended result of garbled pictorial structure. The consistency of form, effect, and concept strongly argues for the first view. In the second part of this article, the symbolism in three of Van Eyck's paintings--the "Virgin in the Church", the "Virgin with the Chancellor Rolin" and the "Virgin with Canon van der Paele"--is examined in greater detail. The ideas are the familiar ones of Christian redemption and rebirth, and they rely on familiar imagery. But the imagery's symbolism is enhanced by an interplay of forms that seems to animate the picture in the process of being recognized as significant--as if the picture acted out its message, passing from an inert state to that of a vision, alive with meaning, and through this stirring of inner life, affirming the promise of rebirth in Paradise.

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