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

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
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.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us