The Painter and the Poet

…or: Did Oswald von Wolkenstein meet Jan van Eyck?

Unlike Édith Piaf, I do have regrets. One of them is not having written this post while Hasan was still around to read it. As many of you will be aware, Hasan Niyazi passed away unexpectedly last fall, and some of his friends in the international blogging community have now initiated a tribute to him, to coincide with the birthday of his favourite artist, Raphael, on April 6. Needless to say, I am most happy to participate in it, since I – like countless others – will always fondly remember his warmness, his generosity and his enthusiasm. [Edited to clarify: I never actually met Hasan in person. I am simply one of the many who were profoundly touched by him in spite of only ever getting to know him online.]

Indeed, such were Hasan’s personal qualities that it almost seems too trivial to add: He also was one of the most brilliant and most influential bloggers in the field of art history. His blog Three Pipe Problem (3PP), as well his Open Raphael Online project really set the standard for what art history on the web could and should be. It therefore felt like being knighted when, in an e-mail some time ago, he asked me whether I would be interested in writing a guest post for 3PP. Of course I was interested! Only, I also happened to be up to my neck in work at the time, and I didn’t want to contribute just any old post, but one that was as meticulously researched as Hasan’s own. (And those familiar with his work will know that the quality of his posts was always incredibly high, no matter how often he modestly pointed out that he wasn’t a professional art historian, nor even an academic.) So what happened was that I replied “Sure, I’d love to, but can I get back to you maybe in a few months, when I have a little more time at hand?” And then, alas, I never did get back to him about it, for a few months later other things had come up to keep me busy, and in the end there was always something that seemed more urgent, more important on my agenda. And then, eventually, later became too late.

So in a sense, the following is the guest post that never came to be. I hope Hasan’s friends and fans will overlook the fact that no mention of his beloved Raphael is made in my post. My subject is, in a way, by Hasan’s own request – what he wrote me all those months ago was: “I’d particularly be excited if you wanted to do a guest piece on a Northern artist like van Eyck, Memling or Durer.” So Jan van Eyck it is…

Jan van Eyck, Madonna with the Child Reading, 1433, National Gallery of Victoria (Image in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons) – did Oswald von Wolkenstein describe a painting similar to this?

In 2001, Swedish art historian Knut Andersson published an article titled The Very First Identified Contemporary Description of a Painting by Jan van Eyck, in which he proposed that a lost painting of the Virgin by the great Early Netherlandish master forms the subject of a poem by his contemporary Oswald von Wolkenstein.1 This hypothesis was further elaborated by Sieglinde Hartmann, one of the leading experts on the poetry of Oswald von Wolkenstein, in a book contribution published in 2007.2 Now, if Andersson’s claim holds true, it would be quite the sensation: While poets’ praise for contemporary painters was already a well-established practice in early 15th century Italy – think of Guarino da Verona’s eulogy on Pisanello – nothing of the kind could so far be verified among their Northern colleagues.

Before I continue, I should perhaps eplain who Oswald von Wolkenstein was. Although a household name in the German-speaking world, he may not be quite as familiar to my international readers. In a nutshell, Oswald was the most important poet writing in the German language during the first half of the 15th century. Although, as most medieval poets, he was actually what today we’d call a singer-songwriter – his verses were set to music and performed by himself. This means that he holds an important position not only in the history of literary, but also in the history of music of that area and era, many of his compositions being based on international models, e.g. works by Francesco Landini or Nicolas Grenon.

Memorial Slab of Oswald von Wolkenstein, donated on the occasion of his departure for the Holy Land in 1408, Brixen Cathedral (Image in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

As this last note already shows, Oswald had a broad cultural horizon. This is little wonder, considering his biography. He was born around 1377 in the South Tyrol, and, according to some of his later autobiographical poems, he soon became squire to a knight in whose company he travelled through most parts of the then-known world, including not only most of Europe (e.g. Italy, France, Spain), but also Northern Africa and Turkey. His travels continued later in his life: For instance, in 1408 he departed on a pilgrimage the Holy Land, and in 1415 he participated in the Council of Constance as a member of the retinue of Duke Friedrich IV. of Tyrol. There, he changed into the service of Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg, and subsequently was sent on embassies to England, Scotland, Portugal and, once again, France. During the latter half of his life, Oswald undertook some more traveling, but all in all his activities were concentrated more on his native Tyrol, where he also ran into some major legal and political trouble. Imprisonment, escape, and allegedly punching the bishop of Brixen in the face are some of the highlights in his post-1420 biography. After a long and adventurous life, Oswald passed away in 1445, and was buried in the Abbey of Neustift near Brixen.

On the basis of his biography, one could certainly say that Oswald von Wolkenstein and Jan van Eyck had quite a lot in common. Both were masters in their own artistic fields, both were employed at some of the most important courts of their time, and in that function both did a lot of travelling. Van Eyck (c. 1390 – 1441), of course, was famously employed by John of Bavaria, Duke of Holland, from 1422 to 1425 and then by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. In Philip’s service, the artist undertook several diplomatic journeys, most famously to the court of Portugal in 1428-29. As Hartmann rightly points out, it is therefore quite possible that the poet and the painter could have met at some point during their travels. The weak point in her argument is, however, that it includes a lot of could’s and possibly’s, but not so much in terms of actual evidence.

Oswald von Wolkenstein, author’s portrait in MS b of Oswald’s poetry, 1432, Universitätsbibliothek Innsbruck (Image in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Certainly, one could point out that Oswald seems to have had both a certain interest in the visual arts and an idea of international artistic trends. The most important testimonial to this is the poet’s bust-length portrait included in a manuscript of his works, now in the Universitätsbibliothek Innsbruck (which you can also view online). This particular manuscript was produced in 1432 under Oswald’s direct supervision, and it opens with what has to be described as the first “realistic” author portrait in the history of German literature. More generally speaking, it is one of the earliest (surviving) examples for a painting from the South German region to take up the new fashion for portraiture that flourished in the Netherlands around that time.

Even the existence of this portrait is, however, at best circumstantial evidence. All it proves is that Oswald had a certain interest in the kind of art produced by Jan van Eyck and his contemporaries. It does not necessarily mean, though, that he was actually familiar with Jan’s own work nor that he ever met Jan in person. At the end of the day, the only piece of evidence for such a connection is Oswald’s poetry itself, or more precisely the poem Es leucht durch graw (Kl. 34), one of several pieces by Oswald dedicated to the Virgin Mary. As is often the case in medieval religious poetry, the it adapts topoi from courtly love poetry and ends up praising the Heavenly Lady in terms that would also have been suitable for a much more worldly object of desire. This Marian poem formed the basis for Andersson’s original hypothesis, but, as we shall see, even this key piece of evidence is far from conclusive and a lot more obscure and problematic than suggested by Andersson and Hartmann.

The poem begins: Es leucht durch graw die vein lasur / durchsichtiklich gesprenget; / Blick durch die braw, rain creatur, /mit aller zier gemenget. Or, in Albrecht Classen’s English translation: The tender glaze gleams through the greyishness, / translucently scattered. / Peer through your eye lashes, you graceful creature, / composed of every imaginable beautiful feature.3 As is evident from the rest of the poem, the graceful creature to whom these lines are addressed is, without doubt, the Virgin Mary. However, the mention of lasur (glaze) in the first line may imply that Oswald approaches his subject not directly but by using an image of the Virgin as a sort of intermediary step. Now, according to Andersson, this image was a lost painting by Jan van Eyck and, no less, one that the painter had actually gifted to the poet. The idea that Oswald himself owned the painting is so far into the realm of speculation that I won’t even engage with it here (I mean, seriously, as we have seen, there isn’t even evidence that the two ever met, and now we’re on to the exchange of personal gifts?!). I’ll also gloss over the fact that the four lines quoted above can hardly be called a description and that Andersson’s title – The Very First Identified Contemporary Description of a Painting by Jan van Eyck – promises more than it can keep, even if the poem should indeed contain a reference to a painting by van Eyck. Instead, let’s focus on the key question here: Where does van Eyck come into this?

Well, the answer is, supposedly, in lines 5-6 of the poem. They read: Breislicher jan, dem niemand kan nach meim verstan / blasnieren neur ain füssel. According to Andersson and Hartmann what these lines mean can be rendered as something like: Praisworthy Jan, whose depiction of a foot, as far as I can tell, couldn’t be imitated by anyone else.4 There are, however, two problematic words in this passage which leave a certain margin for interpretation, i.e. jan and blasnieren, and in both cases it has to be said that the Andersson/Hartmann’s interpretation is at odds with the way that most other scholars have read the lines in question.

For brevity’s sake, I will not go into detail on the problems posed by the word blasnieren (a derivate from the French blasoner). Suffice it to say, that the reading as to imitate may be a bit of a stretch. As far as I can tell, most scholars seem to agree that dem niemand kan (…) blasnieren neur ain fusel should be translated as: to whom nobody could embellish even a small foot. Admittedly, though, the idea of imitation seems to also be present in Classen’s translation of the lines in question; it reads: You have wonderful hay rows, and no one could, at least as far as I can tell, / carve no little foot more beautiful!5 You will have noticed two things in Classen’s translation, though. Firstly, he uses the word to carve, thereby implying that while Oswald is indeed speaking of an image, it is a work of sculpture rather than a painting. This is perhaps the best testimony to the aforementioned fact that the passage as a whole and particularly line 6 is not entirely clear, but rather leaves a notable margin of interpretation. Any far-reaching hypothesis based on an interpretation of those lines must therefore be regarded with a certain amount of scepticism. Secondly, and that’s the even more important point, Classen translates the word jan not as the personal name Jan, but as hay rows. This, it has to be emphasised, is not some sort of obscure translation brought forward by Classen alone. Rather, it’s the meaning almost all scholars in the field, with the exception of Andersson and Hartmann, agree on.

Indeed, the word jan – rendered as Jan or Jahn in modern German – exists in almost all dialects of the German language, and while it assumes slightly different meanings in different geographical regions, it always refers to something like hay, corn6 or wheat, e.g. a row of hay or corn in a field or corn bound together in sheaves. At this point I ought to explain, perhaps, that in the later Middle Ages, the Virgin Mary was frequently compared to and/or addressed as a sheaf of corn or something similar. This goes back to the Old Testament Song of Songs (7,3), where it is said of the Bride that her waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies. We mustn’t forget, of course, that it was one of the favourite pastimes for medieval theologians to draw links between the Virgin Mary and the Bride from the Song of Songs. Thus it also became popular to depict Mary dressed in garments decorated with ears of wheat.

Madonna Dressed in Ears, Tyrolean (probably from Brixen), c. 1450, Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck (Image in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Known in German as Ährenkleidmadonna (approx.. Madonna Dressed in Ears), this particular iconographic type was especially common during the 15th century in the Alpine region – i.e. the region Oswald von Wolkenstein was from. It is therefore much more plausible that, if he refers to an image of the Virgin in Es leucht durch graw, what he had in mind was an Ährenkleidmadonna and not a painting by Jan van Eyck.

That Andersson’s interpretation of this passage as referring to Jan van Eyck is most likely untenable, is also suggested by a look at the rest of the poem, especially the first verse. So far, we have only made it to line 6, and while Andersson and Hartmann are entirely focussed on those first six lines, I believe that to fully understand them it is indispensable to look at the first verse in its entirety. What follows in lines 7-12 is this: An tadels mail ist si so gail, wurd mir zu tail / von ir ain freuntlich grüssel, / So wer mein swer mit ringer wag volkomenlich gescheiden, / von der man er, lob singen mag / ob allen schönen maiden. Here, again, is Classen’s translation: She is far beyond any reproach, happy-carefree, / and if I could win from her even only one amorous greeting, / my suffering would weigh very little / and would disappear completely / because of her, whose honor and praise / can be sung above all beautiful virgins.

Once again, these verses are clearly directed at the Virgin Mary, albeit loaded with the language of courtly love. What we have here then is a verse where lines 1-4 as well as lines 7-12 refer to Mary, and there is a perfectly plausible way of reading lines 5-6 in the same way. Why then should we assume that they refer to something else entirely? That without any evident break in the flow of the poem Oswald switches from addressing Mary to addressing Jan van Eyck and back again in the course of just four lines? At the end of the day, I guess that’s actually the main problem with Andersson’s interpretation: It is based on a more or less arbitrary reading of only a few lines taken out of context, disregarding the form and content of the poem as a whole and, therefore, it simply doesn’t make sense.

So, did Oswald von Wolkenstein meet Jan van Eyck? And did he leave the very first identified contemporary description of one of van Eyck’s paintings? Well, we cannot exclude the possibility, but after all I just said you won’t be surprised to hear that I find it extremely unlikely. What can I say, I’ve always been a fan of Ockham’s razor, you know, the principle that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected (as it’s defined on Wikipedia). And if, as in this case, there is a solid and obvious interpretation available, I don’t see why we should choose to believe an admittedly more dazzling, yet highly speculative hypothesis, based entirely on mere assumptions, instead. And this, I believe or at least I hope, is a principle that Hasan would have agreed on. After all, one of his Hasan’s merits was bringing a fair amount of common sense to art historical analysis, and that (as Martin Kemp has just reminded us) is something that positively set him apart from many others in the field.

  1. According to Hartmann 2007 (see following footnote), Andersson’s article was published on a web-site called Unfortunately, this website seems since to have gone offline. On, two pages from said site are archived, both containing articles signed by Knut Andersson, both however on different subjects. As things are, then, it seems that at the moment Andersson’s propositions can only be inferred from Hartmann’s summary. []
  2. Sieglinde Hartmann, Gotische Madonnenbilder und die Marienlyrik Oswalds von Wolkenstein, in: Ingrid Bennewitz (Ed.), wort unde wîse, singen unde sagen. Festschrift für Ulrich Müller zum 65. Geburtstag, Göppingen 2007, pp. 71-92. []
  3. Albrecht Classen, The Poems of Oswald von Wolkenstein: An English Translation of the Complete Works (1376/77–1445), New York 2008. []
  4. As mentioned above, I haven’t been able to retrace Andersson’s original article, and Hartmann, who writes in German, naturally doesn’t provide an English translation of the passage but merely a paraphrase in modern German. It has to be emphasised, therefore, that the above English “translation” is my own attempt at rendering Hartmann’s paraphrase in English. []
  5. Classen (as above), p. 109. []
  6. That’s corn in the British, not in the American sense of the word. []