Netherlands • XV century−1476

Biography and information

Petrus Christus (1410s, Baarle-Duc, today's Baarle-Hertog, Belgium – 1475/76, Bruges, Belgium) was an outstanding Flemish painter, a portraitist.

Creative features of the artist Petrus Christus. Petrus Christus is the only famous Bruges painter from the period between Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling.
His works hold a crucial place in the complex development of the 15th-century Flemish painting. Petrus Christus's painting style is eclectic. He blends influences – as well as motifs and work procedures – of Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. Christus borrowed templates and compositions from the first painter, simplifying the general idea, and the harmony and expressiveness of the figures from the second one. Christus introduced the interior portrait in which he exchanged the neutral background with the interior of a room. In addition to commissions from Bruges families, he received many assignments from businessmen from Spain and Italy.

Famous paintings by Petrus Christus. A Goldsmith in his Shop (Saint Eligius), Portrait of a Young Lady, Madonna of the Dry TreePortrait of a Carthusian

Between van Eyck and Memling

On July 6, 1444, Petrus Christus went to the burghers’ lodge in Bruges to fulfil the formalities needed to acquire citizenship in this Flemish centre of international commerce. A clerk noted in the registers that “Pieter Christus, son of Pieter, born in Baerle, purchased his citizenship [...] in order to become a painter.” The protectionist regulations of the local painters’ guild were very strict: in order to be allowed to practice his profession in Bruges, Christus had to become a member of this organization, for which citizenship was required.

It is not known how old Christus was when he settled in Bruges; nor is it known where he was trained or whether he spent all of his formative years in his hometown in the duchy of Brabant. Within a short time, Christus secured several important commissions and rose to prominence as Bruges’ leading painter of the mid-fifteenth century, after the death of Jan van Eyck in 1441, and before Hans Memling arrived, around 1465.

Christus acquired citizenship when the city was thriving economically after years of political upheaval between 1436 and 1440. After a harshly punished rebellion, Bruges returned to the good graces and favour of its sovereign, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy. During Christus’s lifetime, Bruges was a favourite 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.

The Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree

Some time between 1458 and 1463, Christus and his wife Gaudicine joined the honourable Bruges Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree, which numbered all the Burgundian dukes and well-known aristocratic and upper-class families among its members. According to a legend, Duke Philip the Good founded the confraternity after he won the battle after praying for victory before the image of the Virgin Mary that appeared in the trunk of an old, dead tree. In fact, the confraternity existed before the ruler’s birth. The meetings were held in the Franciscan monastery, in a private chapel with its altar. It is likely that a member of this confraternity would have commissioned the painting Madonna of the Dry Tree for the purpose of private devotion, or perhaps it was intended for the artist himself.

Certainly indicative of his elevated status in Bruges society, the membership in the confraternity also represented an astute entrepreneurial move on Christus’s part, placing him in the path of important commissions. One of these came in 1463, when Christus and another master painter, Pieter Nachtegale, were paid to supervise the construction of two gigantic props used for tableaux vivants during Philip the Good’s triumphal entry into the city.

His artistic career lasted three decades in Bruges. From 1467 to 1472 Christus's name repeatedly showed up in documents as spokesman for the guild of the visual artists and its leader. The painter died between 2 September 1475 and 13 March 1476 and was buried in the Church of Our Lady. The confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree paid the funeral costs. Bastiaen, a bastard son of Christus, presumably took over his father's studio.

Jan van Eyck’s Follower

Christus’s fame diminished in the North soon after his death. In Italy, however, his reputation endured. A portrait of a French lady by Christus was listed in the 1492 inventory of Lorenzo de’ Medici. The work appeared to be Portrait of a Young Lady which is now a part of a collection of the Berlin Picture Gallery. The studio of Antonello Gagini produced a relief sculpture, the Death of Saint Zita, in about 1503 for the Church of Saint Zita in Palermo that was directly based on Christus’s Death of the Virgin. In a letter of 1524, the humanist author Pietro Summonte mentioned a painting by Christus – “pictor famoso in Fiandra” (“a famous artist from Flanders”) – in the Sannazaro collection in Naples.

When Christus’s oeuvre was rediscovered in the nineteenth century, it was rather pejoratively assessed as “eclectic and largely derivative of Jan van Eyck”. More recent scholarship, while acknowledging van Eyck’s influence, has focused on Christus’s inventive approach to accommodating the wishes of his patrons in Bruges, as the artist adjusted his style to suit their tastes. His meticulous technique is related to that of manuscript illumination; he was most assured working on a diminutive scale, but became increasingly adept at volumetric description in larger works.

Now there are thirty paintings, five drawings and one page from a manuscript attributed to Petrus Christus. Nine of these paintings are signed and dated (all between 1446 and 1457) in a style that refers to Jan van Eyck. Just as Jan van Eyck, he signed his works on the register. Seven of these signed works can be connected with other trustworthy documents. In this way they serve as the basis for the attributions of the non-signed works.

Author: Vlad Maslov