Monday, August 27, 2007


EYCK, Jan van
(b. before 1395, Maaseik, d. 1441, Bruges)
Portrait of a Young Man (Tymotheos) 1432
Oil on wood, 34,5 x 19 cm
National Gallery, London

The sitter in the so-called Tymotheos portrait in the National Gallery in London is depicted half-length behind a parapet.

He holds a rolled parchment in his right hand.

The principal inscription in the painting is the French phrase "Leal Souvenir" meaning "Loyal Remembrance". The inscription appears to be carved in large letters on the parapet.

Beneath it in Latin are the date (10th October 1432) and the artist`s signature.

Above the inscription on a still smaller scale is the Greek inscription "Tymotheos" followed by a flourish.

Much ink has been spilled in trying to identify the sitter of the portrait.

It is one of the most enigmatic of all van Eyck`s paintings. The sitter is hardly forty years, distinguished but not very expensively dressed, and he has the appearance of a learned but delicate ecclesiastic.

The large inscription (LEAL SOVVENIR) makes it evident that the man must have been one of the artist’s very near acquaintances.

One very unlikely suggestion has been presented: the man should be a musician at the court of Philip the Good, fancifully interpreting the shrewd Greek inscription on the first line of the parapet - often read as TYM.OTHEOS - as alluding to a famous musician Tymotheos in classical antiquity, now forgotten. It has also been suggested that the Greek words might mean ´I fear God´.

This is the earliest known portrait by Jan van Eyck that is dated. On the third line on the parapet it has the not very clearly visible text, formulated in legal language Actu(m) an(n)o d(omi)ni 1432. 10. die octobris. a ioh(anne) de Eyck, as if commemorating in a sepulchral way someone whose death has struck the artist very hard, such as the death of a family member or an old friend, someone who like the artist was one of the few north of the Alps that at this time had some knowledge of Greek.

The date, important for obvious reasons, is not likely to refer to the time when the man died, as the portrait wears all the signs of being painted in situ. It must have required several sittings and may therefore be based on another portrait painted in the person’s lifetime. A very curious detail is a deep crack in the parapet on which the three lines are written. This crack is painted in a very illusory way so as to suggest that the parapet is about to break. It has been suggested that this crack should simply refer to the fragility of life, but this does not seem very convincing, as Jan van Eyck is remembered a very advanced specialist of symbolic allusions.