Doorways to the Sacred. Golden glimpses of the Netherlandish nenaissance

22 February 2013–12 May 2013

The National Gallery

This exhibition features an exclusive selection of Netherlandish paintings from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, an era when artists such as Jan van Eyck, Roger van der Weyden, and Quinten Metsys used sophisticated new oil painting techniques to create paintings with a particular form of detailed realism.

The exhibition focuses mainly on smaller paintings featuring biblical and hagiographic motifs. The international renown of such art was linked to the era’s religious sensibilities and needs – but also to the Netherlands’ political, economic, and cultural significance. The exhibition will present both loaned works and items from the National Museum’s own collection.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the National Museum and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp.


During the fifteenth century a distinct tradition of art was created in the Low Countries that would profoundly influence the development of the European Renaissance. The Low Countries, an area that today comprises Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, were at the time ruled by the powerful and culturally influential Duchy of Burgundy, whose territories included parts of northern and eastern France. In the opulent merchant cities along the North Sea, artists such as Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Petrus Christus, and Gerard David developed a new, more realistic style of painting. These artists were partly affiliated with the Burgundian court, partly with the emerging bourgeoisie in cities such as Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, and Brussels. Late Gothic painting and the Italian Renaissance were their foremost sources of inspiration.

The Netherlandish painters’ pioneering efforts were founded on their revolutionary use of oil as an adhesive. This allowed them to create paintings with an unsurpassed level of detail, vibrancy, and texture. At the same time, the Christian motifs and mystically tinged spirituality of the High Middle Ages were to a large part carried over to this new era. Conflicts within the Church and a greater emphasis on the individual helped promote personal piety. As a result, the practice of religious rites within the home became more significant, and many works of art were linked to such private devotion and meditation, in both their symbolism and their usage.

In the art of this era we meet the sacred figures from the Bible and Church history intimately depicted in the guise of contemporaries. The Virgin Mary attained a particular prominence. She featured heavily both in art and in the individuals’ spiritual life, and we frequently encounter her in images, music, and texts. For the faithful she had become an icon, a doorway to the sacred and to Jesus Christ. The exhibition therefore revolves naturally enough around depictions of the Virgin Mary and scenes from her life. It is organized thematically, beginning with a presentation of the external framework for the works of art: the historical backdrop, the era’s culture, and the development of oil painting. Then we meet the Virgin Mary as the mother of Jesus and queen of heaven, where an elaborate symbolism serves to express her beauty, purity, love, and piety. The Virgin Mary is also integral in paintings that depict the suffering and death of Jesus: she is the grieving mother who suffers alongside her crucified son and who simultaneously worships him as the Saviour.