Representations of church architecture are ubiquitous in 15th-century Flemish panel painting. The intricacy and wealth of finely-wrought detail of Gothic architecture, in particular, drew the attention of painters like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, as it provided them with an opportunity to hone—and show off—the hyper-realistic simulation of optical reality they had achieved through the mastery of the oil-glazing technique. The interiors of the churches seen in Jan’s Virgin in a Church and Rogier’s Seven Sacraments Altarpiece are fitted out with painstakingly-realized niches, sculpture, stained glass, hanging crucifixes, candles, liturgical objects and architectural decoration that clearly reflects a deep familiarity with actual churches such as the cathedrals and parish churches of Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels, and other centers.
Despite this high degree of exactitude in the rendering of details, only rarely do Flemish painters depict actual, built monuments or record the appearance of a real structure at a given historical moment. Instead, motifs, proportions, decorative elements and formal arrangements seen in the various churches of the era are selected and combined to create a virtual Gothic that is, and is not, of our world. To put it another way, these are buildings are familiar, but not known.
Furthermore, what transpires in these buildings does not correspond to customary uses of real ecclesiastical architecture. Both Jan and Rogier’s churches are occupied by the Virgin and Christ, who lived over 1000 year prior to the development of Gothic architecture, and they are of a scale wholly disproportionate to their settings (Panofsky wryly commented that the Virgin in a Church could easily have be referred to as the Virgin is the Church).
An indication of how one should interpret this seemingly paradoxical combination of realism and anachronism, of observation and imagination, can be found in a late 15th-century illuminated prayerbook owned by Mary of Burgundy, the consort of the emperor Maximillian. A full-page illumination shows Mary perusing her book of hours, seated next to a glazed window that opens not on to the outdoors, but on to the choir of a vast Gothic cathedral. Seated in that choir are the Virgin and Child, before whom Mary and her ladies in waiting kneel in prayer. The image within the image is not meant to replicate any reality—Mary cannot be watching herself have an audience with the Virgin. Instead, it is a visual metaphor, used to illustrate the spiritual realm, to which Mary gains access by means of the image she sees in her book. The architectural setting is therefore a visionary space, and the generalized forms of real ecclesiastical buildings designate that space as religious, other-worldy and sanctified. The experience is not limited to Mary alone—a vacant stool sits next to her, inviting the viewer to join her.
In Rogier’s Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, the Crucifixion takes place in the nave of a Gothic church, while contemporary figures enact the administration of the sacraments in the aisles of the church. Here, the focus is more institutional than personal: the architectural setting indicates that the salvation made possible by the crucifixion and attained through the sacraments takes place, figuratively speaking, within the church, which is both a material reality and a religious concept. Jan also makes use of the distinction between aisles and nave in the Dresden Madonna, which places the Virgin and Child at the end of a nave, in place of the high altar where the sacrifice of Christ is re-enacted, while saints and the donor appear in the aisles–secondary places for secondary figures.
Jan’s Virgin in a Church is the left wing of a devotional diptych, the right wing of which is lost. The overall appearance of the original is preserved in a copy of the work made by Quentin Massys in the early 16th century. The missing right wing showed the donor in an outdoor setting facing the Virgin and Child, who are rendered in proportion to him. The difference in setting is clear: the donor exists in the world, whereas the divine realm is signified by an idealized version of Gothic architecture.
These distinctions make other works such as Rogier’s Miraflores Altarpiece or his Virgin and Child seated in a Niche more intelligible—the Gothic arches mark out a sanctified space and what goes on beneath them is not part of the material world we inhabit despite the proliferation of details that suggest it might be.