We are looking at the east end of a Gothic church, where the body of a bishop is being exhumed from his tomb in front of the high altar. This is Saint Hubert, Bishop of Maastricht and Liège, who died in 727. He is being moved from Liège to the newly founded abbey of Saint-Hubert-en-Ardenne, in 825. Although he has been dead 98 years, his body is in perfect condition – proof of his sainthood.
This is one of two surviving panels from a series of the life of Saint Hubert, painted for the chapel of Saint Hubert in the church of Saint Gudula in Brussels (now the cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudula). It was probably commissioned when the chapel was founded in the 1430s and includes portraits of the founders and their family members in the crowd clustered around the grave.
We are looking at the east end of a Gothic church, where the body of a bishop is being carefully lifted from his tomb in front of the high altar. This is Saint Hubert, Bishop of Maastricht and Liège, who died in 727. This was the second time his tomb had been opened; here, he is being moved from Liège to the newly founded abbey of Saint-Hubert-en-Ardenne, in 825. Although he has been dead 98 years, his body has not rotted – proof of his sainthood.
This is one of two surviving panels from a series of the life of Saint Hubert, painted for the saint’s chapel in the church of Saint Gudula in Brussels (now the cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudula); the other is The Dream of Pope Sergius (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles). The series was probably commissioned when the chapel was founded in the 1430s by Jan Vrientschap, a wealthy Brussels property owner, and his brother-in-law Jan Coels, a money-changer.
Historical and contemporary characters crowd around the open grave. The bishop swinging a censer (incense burner) is presumably Walcaud, Bishop of Liège, who supervised the exhumation. Behind him is Louis the Pious (778–840), King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor. His robe is decorated with the blue and gold fleur-de-lis of France juxtaposed with the imperial eagle. On the right, in profile, is Adelbald, Archbishop of Cologne, who gave permission for Hubert to be moved to his new resting place.
Apart from Louis and the courtier immediately behind him, whose beards indicate that they are from the remote past, and the clerics taking part in the exhumation, the crowd wears contemporary dress. Some peer over each other’s shoulders to get a glimpse of the saint’s body, others chat. Some may be portraits of the painting’s commissioners and members of their families. Vrientschap and his wife Catharina might be the elderly couple on the left, with their three eldest sons behind them and their two youngest in front. Coels might be the man craning his head to see at the right of the altar, with his wife, another Catharina, beside him and his illegitimate son Hendrick at the far right. The priest standing between them may be Gillis Coels, the chapel’s first priest.
But many of these people were not originally part of the picture; the decision to include them appears to have been made at a late stage and involved radical reorganisation of the composition. Although the painting was designed and in part executed by Rogier van der Weyden, he was apparently too busy to give it his full attention. Once he had made studies for the central group he seems to have delegated the work to assistants, some of whom were perhaps not yet fully trained to work in his style. Some of the surrounding group are out of scale and are lit from different angles; many of the heads are painted in different techniques.
Rogier may have intervened again before the painting was finished: the two boys on the left are almost certainly his work. They were painted with tremendous skill and confidence, directly over the red robe of Louis' attendant.
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