For me, the way into the appreciation of this painting is through the faces. Chancellor Rolin is on the left. He’s the wealthy and influential minister who hired Jan Van Eyck to paint this. He’s gazing at the supernatural visitation on the right with a severe and attentive look. To me it feels as though the world of the holy and supernatural is part of his daily work and something he considers a very serious matter indeed.
Now we notice that the others in the painting also have very serious looks. On the right, the Virgin Mary is seated with the infant Jesus, who is making a gesture of blessing toward Rolin. According to the Louvre:
Mary seems to be looking at the cross on top of the globe [that the infant Jesus is holding], prefiguring her son’s suffering and crucifixion.
Again, very serious. And the infant Jesus also has a serious look on his face. It appears that one can say intellectually that the painting is about the severity and seriousness of true Christian devotion. I’d like to suggest that this painting may also be about the seriousness of the search for beauty in life — something I’m not sure I ever felt before I saw this painting.
Do you feel it?