Petrus Christus was an Early Netherlandish painter active in Bruges from 1444. Christus was born near Antwerp and was long considered a student of and successor to Jan van Eyck.
On July 6, 1444, Petrus Christus went to the burghers’ lodge in Bruges to fulfill the formalities needed to acquire citizenship in this Flemish center of international commerce. Christus arrived in a city that was thriving economically after years of political upheaval between 1436 and 1440. During Christus’s lifetime, Bruges was a favorite residence of the Burgundian dukes, who often made triumphal entrances into the city, accompanied by distinguished guests. Along with the regular presence of the ducal court, wealthy local businessmen and foreign merchants and bankers comprised a potential clientele that drew artists such as Christus to the city. Mediterranean nations played an especially prominent role in Bruges’ commerce; significantly, nearly half of Christus’s small oeuvre was commissioned by Italians, has an Italian or Spanish provenance, or was early on known to southern artists such as Antonello da Messina.
It is unknown whether Christus visited Italy, and brought style and technical accomplishments of the greatest Northern European painters directly to Antonello da Messina and other Italian artists, or whether his paintings were purchased by Italians. A document testifying to the presence of a „Piero da Bruggia“ (Petrus from Bruges?) in Milan may suggest that he visited that city at the same time as Antonello, and the two artists may even have met. This might account for the remarkable similarities between the Portrait of a Man attributed to Christus in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and many of Antonello’s portraits, including the supposed self-portrait in the National Gallery in London. It would also be a convenient means of explaining how Italian painters learned about oil painting and how Northern painters learned about linear perspective. Antonello, along with Giovanni Bellini, was one of the first Italian painters to use oil paint like his Netherlandish contemporaries.
A late work, the reserved Portrait of a Young Girl belongs among the masterworks of Flemish painting, marking a new development in Netherlandish portraiture. It no longer shows the sitter in front of a neutral background, but in a concrete space defined by the wall panels. Christus had already perfected this format in his two portraits of 1446. The unknown woman, whose exquisite clothing suggests that she might come from France, radiates an aura of discretion and of nobility, while appearing slightly unreal in the elegant stylization of her form.
Among Christus’s best known works, A Goldsmith in His Shop, signed and dated 1449, is also perhaps his most enigmatic. This view into a goldsmith’s stall, where a fashionably dressed couple chooses a wedding ring, conveys a sense of the opulent world of fifteenth-century burghers. The goldsmith was once identified as Saint Eligius, who brought Christianity to Flanders and was associated in Bruges with the guilds of the gold- and silversmiths, the blacksmiths and metalworkers, and (along with Saint Luke) the painters and saddlemakers. It is more likely a vocational painting, depicting the profession of goldsmithing and perhaps a particular goldsmith. Technical analysis reveals the underdrawing of the goldsmith’s face to be very fully modeled—more so than the faces of the bridal couple—suggesting the possibility of a portrait. Hugo van der Velden has proposed that he is Willem van Vleuten, a Bruges goldsmith who worked for Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy. In 1449, the date of this painting, the duke commissioned from van Vlueten a gift for Mary of Guelders for her marriage to James II, King of Scots. That couple may well be depicted in this painting. The diversity of finely crafted objects at the right serves as a kind of advertisement for the goldsmiths’ guild. Included are raw material of the trade—coral, crystal, porphyry, open sacks of seed pearls, and a string of beads—and finished products made from them—brooches, rings, and a belt buckle. The crystal container on the lower shelf was probably meant for storing Eucharistic wafers, and the pewter vessels above are presentkannen, or donation pitchers, which the city’s aldermen offered to distinguished guests. The assemblage of objects thus presents gold- and silversmiths in the service of both religious and secular communities. The Eyckian device of the convex mirror, reflecting two young men with a falcon (symbol of pride and greed), establishes a moral comparison between the imperfect world of the viewer and the world of virtue and balance depicted here.
The ways in which the Portrait of a Carthusian differs from van Eyck’s representations show the innovations Christus brought to Flemish portraiture. Instead of employing a uniformly dark, anonymous setting, Christus set off the white-robed figure with a warm red, ambiguous background. Here he also introduced a new concept in panel painting: the corner-space portrait. The sitter is anchored obliquely in a narrow cell-like space defined by two sources of light: an intense raking light issuing from the right and a softer glow illuminating the back left corner. Christus may have borrowed the notion of a diagonal point of view into an interior corner from pre-Eyckian manuscript illuminations such as those by the Limbourg brothers. Further eliminating the barrier between sitter and viewer, Christus added the ingenious device of the trompe-l’oeil fly, momentarily perched just above the artist’s name on the windowsill. In later portraits, he discarded the ambiguous lighting and complex spatial description seen here, favoring a compositional balance of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines to anchor the sitter in a dynamic geometrical construct, as in thePortrait of a Young Woman of about 1470 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).