PRINT January 2008


“Dutch Primitives”

Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Glorification of the Virgin Mary, ca. 1495, oil on wood panel, 10 1/2 x 8".

IN THE EARLY 1400s, painters in the Low Countries created a new species of image. With wood panels as their favored support, and handling their medium of oil-based pigments in unprecedented ways, they crafted glazed and layered likenesses the only real-world equivalents of which—optically—were natural reflections. Boasting this by including mirrors in their compositions, these artists astonished everyone who saw their work, including the Italians, who, at the time, recognized the technical superiority of the northerners. This new image technology did more than overwhelm with its mimetic power, however. Constructing virtual realities consistent with the perceived world, it allowed viewers to explore worlds hitherto inaccessible to experience.

In this culture, painting stood at the service of religion. The virtualities it proposed were mostly those allowing visual access

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