top of page

What? Primitives in Belgium!

Updated: May 7, 2021

Close up of Joseph of Arimathea from Van der Weyden's Deposition, 1435.

Mary Cleophas close up from Van der Weyden's Deposition, 1435.

Perhaps someone can explain to me how it is that the 15th century Flemish and Netherlandish painters can be called Primitives. I don't see anything primitive about the two faces above, painted by Rogier Van der Weyden in 1435 in his Descent from the Cross (Deposition), now hanging in the Prado in Madrid. And Maitre Rogier, as I call him, was not alone in his excellence. All one has to do is look at the work of Jan Van Eyck, his predecessor as court painter to the Duke of Burgundy. Primitive?

Oh really? In fact, I don't think that any human creations are primitive. I say that the first piece of avant garde art was the prehistoric hand print by a cave man who took a moment away from his painting of colorful animals to blow pigment onto his hand, leaving the mark of that hand on the wall. That's as good as Banksy in my book. But I digress.

Self Portrait of Jan Van Eyck, 1433

Of course Italy was the home of the Renaissance, as well as being where one found the remains of Ancient Rome, so it never lost its connection to the visual classicism of the ancients, unlike the parts of Europe that succumbed to the Dark Ages. However, this casting aspersions on everything not Italian Renaissance is questionable. Gothic, the term that would make the art of the Middle Ages barbaric, is in fact very sophisticated, beautiful art and architecture. Just go to the Sainte Chapelle (built in 1248) in Paris and look at the stained glass windows and the soaring architecture. Likewise, the masters of the north were highly skilled artists, who also used oil paints, which gives their work added dimension. I know the art historians all love to go to sunny Italy, but I am going to stick with the masters from the rainy, gloomy, sunless north - at least for the moment - their wonders to reveal.

That brings me to Rogier Van der Weyden's tears. The painting of the 14th and 15th centuries generally does not show great emotion. Yes, there are the occasional paintings of the Virgin Mary showing surprise when she is told, by an angel no less, that she is about to become pregnant (I'd certainly be surprised). Also we have all those tortured souls cast into hell expressing their terror. However, in general there is a lot of solemnity in the painting of the time as befits the religious subject matter - serious business. Then there was Rogier, who took over as court painter to Philippe the Good of Burgundy in 1441 after Van Eyck ascended. (Yes, in my universe great painters never die; they just ascend.) However, it was in 1435 that Rogier painted what is considered one of the masterpieces of his great career, The Descent from the Cross, also called, The Deposition.

The Descent from the Cross (Deposition) by Rogier Van der Weyden, 1435.

Rogier saw this for the heart-breaking event it was for the family and close friends of the dead man. Logically those nearest to someone who died so cruelly would be in tears, and everlasting life aside, even Jesus' family and friends would have cried. Here, (once again look at the detailed pictures above) one sees true magic in those beautiful, crystalline teardrops, so pure you see right through to the skin color underneath them. You almost want to reach out and wipe them away from the sorrowful faces.

Now I willingly admit to sometimes being a fool, as I certainly was when I set for myself the task of trying to paint a tear in watercolor. I mean tears are water and watercolor uses water - what could go wrong? First, how do you get the skin tone underneath? Watercolor paper is white, and if you tone it with a watercolor, once you start on the watery tear, it all blends together. I took a few swipes at it, as you can see below, and did not succeed particularly well.

Feeble attempt at a tear #3

All this to prove that Rogier Van der Weyden, who lived almost 600 years ago, is the master of tears and so much more. I agree with art historian Waldemar Januszczak that these Flemish masters of oil paints and their works should be known as the Northern Renaissance.

Here's a challenge to all you watercolorists out there: paint a tear as realistic as Rogier's in watercolor. Log in and show the results. Given my attempt, you know that I will not laugh.

For the rest of you, tell us about some piece of painted magic that left an impression on you.

Be sure to check out Waldemar Januszczak's many art history videos on Youtube.

And of course his website:

All photos of the paintings are in public domain.

Remember Art loves you, so return the favor.

For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at

She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on

© Marjorie Vernelle 2019

28 views5 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Marjorie Vernelle
Marjorie Vernelle
Mar 24, 2019

Wow, Galen. I like the teardrop you did. It has more contrast than mine so it stands out better against the background. Hard to beat Rogier, isn't it?


I tried the drop challenge. I printed out one of the Weyden paintings and tried to duplicate and wow, I was seriously defeated! I painted amoebas and vaginas and everything but tears! That's hard! lmao


Marjorie Vernelle
Marjorie Vernelle
Mar 18, 2019

Wow, Rita! I love it. I like the idea of the pale blue around the edge and in the background. It's a tough thing to do. Bravo!


I tried your drop challenge Marjorie.

bottom of page