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reading into The Magdalen Reading


The Magdalen Reading is described by Wikipedia as “one of three surviving fragments of a large mid-15th-century oil on panel altarpiece by the Early Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden. The panel, originally oak, was completed some time between 1435 and 1438 and has been in the National Gallery, London since 1860.” 

One of the surviving fragments is a portrait generally assumed to be Joseph the husband of the Virgin Mary. The Joseph portrait is housed at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, along with the third fragment thought to be Catherine of Alexandria. The original altarpiece is associated with a drawing known as Virgin and Child with Saints in Stockholm’s National Museum of Fine Arts.

Jan van Eyck Self Portrait (?) 1433.

National Gallery, London.

It is generally accepted that Joseph was a much older man when he married Mary and most likely died before Jesus began his public ministry. The last appearance of Joseph in the Gospels is when Jesus, twelve years old at the time, went missing and eventually found in the temple. No mention of Joseph is made at the Cana Wedding but the account states that Mary, Jesus and his disciples had been invited.

Joseph is usually portrayed as having a beard, so did Van der Weyden have a reason for portraying the husband of Mary without one?  Who could be the man portrayed as a beardless Joseph with just some coarse stubble on his chin?

A close inspection reveals that ‘Joseph’ is not in the best of health. He seems anxious and pensive in the presence of the Virgin and Child. His eyes are bloodshot and he supports himself with a walking stick while praying on the beads held in his right hand. Is the artist simply illustrating that Joseph was not destined to see the Virgin’s Child grow to maturity, or was Van der Weyden aware of someone closer to home who would be a fitting stand-in for the role of Joseph – maybe a friend, a  mentor or foster-figure? Perhaps even Jan van Eyck?

Rogier van der Weyden was a contemporary of Jan van Eyck. He was born in either 1399 or 1400. There is no record of Van Eyck’s birth but it is put at before 1390, which would make him at least ten years older than Van der Weyden. Jan died July 9, 1441, while Rogier’s death is recorded as June 18, 1464.

The National Gallery dates The Magdalen Reading as before 1438. That’s three years after Van Eyck completed the Arnolfini Portrait and three years before his death.

If Van Eyck is the man portrayed as Joseph, then there are very visible signs that he is not in good shape. In this portrait Jan is probably less than 50 years of age and just three years away from death. He has aged considerably since the self portrait painted in 1433. What could be the cause of such a rapid decline that would bring about his early demise?

Van Eyck married late in life. His wife gave birth to their first child in 1434 when Jan would have been at least 45 years old, and Margaret possibly about the age of 30. So when Van Eyck died in 1441, his eldest child would probably have been no more than eight years old.

Was this the parallel that inspired Van der Weyden to portray Jan van Eyck as St Joseph – a father leaving this world through sickness before his children grew to maturity? Van der Weyden also went on to feature Van Eyck extensively in his painting of the Seven Sacraments after the artist’s death, which suggests that there may have been a special affinity between the two painters, certainly one of high regard on Van der Weyden’s part. So are there any other clues in the painting that might point to this friendship and further identify Van Eyck in the role of Joseph?

As a window allows light to come into a room, so the window area in the painting is designed to enlighten the viewer. Even the partial view provides further information about the two main figures of Joseph and Magdalen. The archer with his crossbow pointing in the direction of Joseph (alias Van Eyck) represents Rogier van der Weyden.

The Joseph portrait is housed at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon.


He is not firing arrows with any malicious intent but, instead, aiming his bow at the wall of the church building. The scene refers to the biblical account of the friendship between Jonathan and David recorded in the first book of Samuel, chapter 20, when Jonathan’s father King Saul was intent on killing David. The firing of an arrow against “a pile of stones” was a signal to David that Saul was still planning murder and so this meant the friends must part. Jonathan’s final words to David were “Go in peace” and it is probably this sentiment that Rogier is expressing to Jan in light of Van Eyck’s anticipated death. 

David had earlier angered Saul by being absent from his place at the king’s table for two nights, having gone into hiding. This is depicted by the empty tabernacle or aedicula on the building behind Van Eyck. The pedestal and canopy are there, but the statue is missing. This may also be seen as Van der Weyden preparing to elevate his friend to kingly or even saintly status.

Jonathan (from the tribe of Benjamin) and David (from the tribe of Judah) were considered rivals for the kingship of Israel but after Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle, David was crowned king. Simarly, while some may have considered Jan and Rogier both masters of their art, and so perhaps rivals, there is little doubt that Van der Weyden regarded Van Eyck as worthy of the crown.

Just as the archer relates to the figure of St Joseph so the two figures in the left pane of the window are connected to the figure of St Magdalen. Mary Magdalen, from who seven devils were cast out by Jesus, is the same Mary whose sister Martha complained about for not helping serve the guests, choosing instead to sit and listen to Jesus speaking (Luke 10 : 38-42). Jesus responded by telling Martha that Mary had chosen the better part – that is, listening to and meditating on the word of God. It is this role that Van der Weyden has depicted Mary Magdalen. It is the Word of God that connects Mary Magdalen to the man and the woman in the scene outside. They refer to another biblical passage, the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13 : 4-9, 18-23). The woman represents the one who received the seeds (the word of God) on the edge of the path “and the birds came and ate them up”.  The man is the one who receives the seed in thorns, “but the worries of this world and the lure of riches choke the word and so he produces nothing”.

Another event Mary is associated with is when Jesus visited Bethany and she anointed his feet with “costly ointment, pure nard”. The aromatic oil is derived from spikenard, a flowering plant of the Valerian family. The jar of oil placed beside Mary is her attribute in Christian art – just as the rod of spikenard is the attribute of St Joseph and linked also to the amber-coloured beads Joseph holds in his right hand. Amber, approaching orange, is also the colour of Joseph’s undergarment and the same colour Van der Weyden uses for the cushion under Mary Magdalen.

Another colour that connects the two figures is Joseph’s blue coat and the blue girdle around Mary’s waist which tails towards the jar of oil. This is Van der Weyden’s method of linking not only Joseph and Mary Magdalen but also Van Eyck, symbolising his innovative oil painting techniques.

The end of the girdle is fastened with a gold clasp with seven pearl pendants set in gold mounts. They represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit given to Mary Magdalen after she had seven demons cast out of her. The clasp’s design also depicts heaven’s ramparts and seven heavenly planets. 

The girdle or cincture can also be seen as representative of the Cord of St Joseph, when devotees of a saint bind their waist with a cord or belt to acknowledge their devotion and request the saint’s intercession for favours. St Joseph is also the patron saint of fathers and of a ‘happy death’, and perhaps Van der Weyden had this in mind also when he decided on Jan van Eyck to represent St Joseph. But what if the cincture represents a closer bond or tie between Van Eyck and the woman? Could she be relative or someone known to Van Eyck, someone who would also be present at his death as Magdalen was present at the foot of the Cross during Christ’s crucifixion?

The Magdalen connection to Van Eyck is also made in a later painting by Van der Weyden. A similar seated figure of ‘Mary Magdalen’ is reproduced in the Seven Sacraments Altarpiece and placed at the final sacrament that shows Van Eyck on his deathbed.

Perhaps the most telling references to Van Eyck and his demise are the amber prayer beads and his covered left hand. The knotted branch of St Joseph is no longer seen to be flowering. It is covered and out of sight; the bloom has disappeared. The coat is draped over the hand as if it was a shroud. The beads are all that the man, be he Joseph or Van Eyck, can count on. Prayer is his faith, hope and light as darkness covers him. 

Counting the beads reveals the message Van der Weyden is presenting, that Jan van Eyck is dying. His right hand grips four of the amber beads, separated as three and one. This is a reference to Mark’s Gospel, 3 : 1, and the account of the man with the withered hand. 

Van der Weyden is not saying that Van Eyck has a withered hand. He is implying that Van Eyck’s life is withering and cross-references this account with the passage from Isaiah 40 : 8 which states: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God remains for ever.” The number of beads below the hand relate to 4(0) : 8.

Again, reference is made to the Word of God. From this and the fragmented information available about the rest of the painting it can be seen that the prominent theme of the artwork is focused on witnessing to the Word of God.

The Stockholm drawing is said to be a sketch representing the left section of Van der Weyden’s painting and is attributed to the Master of the Koberger Ründblatter. The connection is made by linking the red garment in the Magdalen Reading to the garment and feet of the man kneeling in front of the Virgin and Child. The kneeling man is John the Apostle. To the right of the Virgin and Child is said to be John the Baptist, while the figure of the bishop is unidentified. The Word of God theme is repeated in this section with the two Johns holding holy books – the word as written – and the Virgin holding the Child Jesus, the Word made flesh.

Detail of the archer with his crossbow, and the man and woman walking along the winding path beside the canal.

The Magdalen Reading was completed sometime between 1435 and 1438 and has been in the National Gallery, London, since 1860

The jar of oil – an attribute of Mary Magdalen and linked to the figure of Van Eyck.

The seventh sacrament in Rogier van der Weyden’s painting of the Seven Sacraments.

Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium.

The string of amber prayer beads

refer to Scripture passages.

Left to right: Unidentified bishop, John the Baptist, the Virgin and Child, John the Apostle, St Joseph (Jan van Eyck) and Mary Magdalen.

It is thought the third fragment of the original painting could be the portrait of St Catherine of Alexandria (right), although she does not appear on the sketch. A possible consideration for the role of the bishop is Jean Chevrot (pictured left), the same bishop who commissioned and is featured in Van der Weyden’s painting of the Seven Sacraments. If it were, then all four men in the frame are linked with the same first name, John, or its derivative.

The name John derives from Hebrew, meaning “God is merciful”, which echoes the sentiment proclaimed in the The Magnificat by the Virgin on her visitation to Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1 : 46-55), the man sent by God “as a witness to speak for the light, so that everyone might believe through him” (John 1 : 7).

The apostle John, “bending down” before the Child Jesus was the first of the twelve apostles to reach the tomb. “He bent down and saw the linen cloths lying on the ground but did not go in” (John 20 : 5).

It was Mary Magdalen who was first to see and speak with Jesus after he had risen from the dead. Chosen to proclaim Christ’s resurrection to the other disciples, she became known as ‘Apostle to the Apostles’.

Jean Chevrot became bishop of Tournai in November 1436. The Magdalen Reading is dated at between 1435 and 1438, so it is possible that Chevrot may have commissioned the painting to mark his appointment. He later sponsored two other works by Rogier van der Weyden: The Seven Sacraments altarpiece, and the Descent from the Cross between 1452 and 1455.

• Next page... The Columba Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden

The portrait said to be of Catherine of Alexandria and possibly a third fragment associated with Van der Weyden’s ‘Virgin and Child with Saints’, is housed at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon.

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