Rogier van der Weyden: Master of Passions, Museum Leuven, Belgium

Rogier's poster girl more than makes up for absent friends

The Leuven Museum's reopening show, Rogier van der Weyden: Master of Passions, is made up of a number of absences and a single great presence, the last being Rogier himself, one of the few artists who can unhesitatingly be said to have changed the way we see the world. It is the absences, though, that allow us to see the miraculousness of Rogier, the 15th century's painter of miracles.

Consider the exhibition's poster girl, The Magdalen Reading. On loan from the National Gallery in London, the Magdalen seems self-contained as she sits lost in her book, her louche past hinted at by the nap in the fur lining of her dress, the hair that escapes from her veil. Even her fingers, absent-mindedly circled, suggest completeness. In her mix of purity and eroticism, Rogier's Magdalen feels whole; but she isn't.

To her left, protruding from under a red robe, are toes – as it happens, those of Saint John the Evangelist, long ago cut from the altarpiece of which the London Magdalen was once a part. The decapitated man behind her is St Joseph, his body here reunited with its head, now in a Lisbon museum. There may be other missing saints, too. If the contemporary drawing of a lost Rogier altarpiece by the Master of Girart de Roussillon is this altarpiece, then John the Baptist and an unnamed bishop were also part of the sacra conversazione, that emotional grouping of saints with the Madonna and Child which Rogier made his own. Sometime between the altarpiece's completion before 1438 and the sale of The Magdalen Reading from the collection of a man named Cassino in 1810, the panels were cut and their parts sold; a depressingly familiar story in Van der Weyden's career.

And yet, this destruction tells us something of the almost religious esteem in which Rogier was held by his fellows. Like the teeth and knuckle-bones of the saints he painted, the artist's relics were things to be fought over. A century after he finished it, Rogier's Descent from the Cross, now in the Prado, was in the palace of Mary of Hungary. Seeing it there, one Hapsburg courtier remarked that Michelangelo himself might have painted it. Another, Vicente Alvarez, went one better and claimed the picture as the best in the royal collection, "and even, I believe, in the whole world". The Descent is also absent from this show, together with such great Rogiers as The Last Judgement altarpiece in Beaune. Almost six centuries after they were painted, these works aren't so much too fragile to travel as too treasured, the thought of their loss or damage even now impossible to contemplate.

Making a virtue of absence calls for real skill, and this brilliant show has it in spades. Without over-egging their case, its curators raise the central question of Renaissance art history: whether the main current of influence between Italian and Netherlandish painting ran south to north or the other way. One of the greatest absences is also one of the oldest, the monumental panels made by Rogier for the new town hall of Brussels in the 1430s and burned when Louis XIV's invading armies bombarded the city in 1695. Like so much of his work, the panels are known only from copies – here, tapestries commissioned by the Bishop of Lausanne in the early 1440s. These seem recognisably Italianate, influenced perhaps by Benozzo Gozzoli's Magi paintings in the Palazzo Medici in Florence. Actually, it was Benozzo who was Rogierian, not Rogier Italianate.

Something of the scale of the master's influence is hinted at by the number of times the Flemish words "naar" and "navogel" – "after" and "follower of" – appear in signage to this show. By the time of his death in 1464, Rogier's hand was everywhere, and not just in painting. The couple leaning over a parapet in St Luke drawing the Virgin – naar Rogier – reappear, half a century later, in a Brussels tapestry. The illuminated Virgin and Child in the Grimani Breviary are also Rogierian, as are the four stone-carved Apostles in Room 5 and the wooden Calvary group from a church at Bierghes. The floating loincloth of the crucified Christ is pure Rogier: we see it later in Florentine painting, most famously in Botticelli. Of Rogier himself, there is only a great mystery – a portrait engraving made a century after his death, the workshop picture of an ageing couple thought to be the master and his wife. And then there is the work: the incomparable pathos and beauty of Rogier's vision, the magnificent subject of this unmissable show.

M van Museum, Leuven, Belgium (0032 16 20 09 09) to 6 Dec

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition