Limburg town gives Van Eyck brothers belated homecoming


With the Van Eyck Year, Maaseik is letting the world know that it is ready to take its rightful place as one of Flanders’ Van Eyck cities

Hometown boys

Very little is known about the early life of the prolific Flemish Primitive Jan van Eyck, one of the 15th century’s most innovative and influential painters, responsible for such luminary works as “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” (otherwise known as the Ghent Altarpiece) and “The Arnolfini Portrait”, which hangs in London’s National Gallery.

As little as is known about him, even less is known about his brother, Hubert, who worked together with him. Today, most historians accept Maaseik, on the eastern tip of Limburg just over the border from the Netherlands, as the probable birthplace of the Van Eycks, despite rival claims from other towns and a lack of conclusive evidence one way or another.

But in the 19th century, Maaseik had already claimed the Van Eyck brothers as their own. Myriam Giebens, alderwoman for culture in Maaseik, says history is on their side “because of that book from 1604 by Karel van Mander, which has always been in the city’s possession,” she says. “There it is stated very clearly that the brothers Van Eyck were originally from Maaseik.”

The book in question, the Schilder-Boeck, or Painter Book, was an early source of information on the lives of Netherlandish painters. An original 17th-century copy is still in the collection of Maaseik’s city library.

Maaseik’s claim to be the birthplace of Jan van Eyck is further supported by his daughter Livina’s entry to the city’s convent of St Agnes a few years after the painter’s death, suggesting that the family retained ties with the city even after years of living in Bruges.

Starting next month, Maaseik will give the two painters a year-long festive homecoming, punctuated by many commemorative events and exhibitions.

Old is new again

Aside from being a celebration of the Van Eycks and the city’s history, Maaseik’s Van Eyck Year is meant to be a stimulus for new creative and community projects. Several local artists will show new works based on the work of Jan van Eyck, and “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” in particular. 

It is said very clearly that the brothers Van Eyck were originally from Maaseik

- Maaseik alderwoman Myriam Giebens

For Van Eyck onder de loep (Van Eyck Under the Microscope), Flemish artist Marieta Bruekers has created three-dimensional realisations of the precious gems depicted in the altarpiece. Turnhout artist Bie Flameng will show drawings and graphic works inspired by Van Eyck, and an installation piece by Maaseik-born artist Frans Slangen will explore the idea of the “unfinished past” as well as the “Mystic Lamb”.

A craze for erecting statues of prominent historical or mythical figures swept Europe and America in the mid-19th century, and Belgium was no exception. In the newly created state, these statues enshrined local heroes, who embodied a nascent national identity and served as focal points for civic pride.

Great men and women from the past depicted in bronze, stone and marble began appearing in cities across Flanders. In Limburg province, Tongeren chose Gallic warlord Ambiorix, who fought and defeated a Roman legion in the time of Julius Caesar, to grace the central square. And in Maaseik, then a small city on the Meuse river, local leaders chose to honour 15th-century painters Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

The dedication of the monumental statue, sculpted in marble by Leopold Wiener, in the centre of Maaseik’s Markt on 5 September 1864, was a grand event attended by King Leopold I, the governor, the mayor and other prominent citizens.

The 150-year anniversary of the unveiling of the statue (pictured) will be the highlight of the Folk Festival on Maaseik’s central Markt on 7 September, which will kick off the Van Eyck Year. 

Local masters

The centrepiece of the festival is a re-enactment of the dedication ceremony, with the Markt decorated to look as it did 150 years ago and costumed actors standing in for the main players. Musicians will provide appropriate fanfare and the “mayor” will give a speech based on the actual 1854 dedication speech. 

The Master Bakers of Maaseik plan to bake a giant knapkoek, a local speciality similar to a sugar cookie, in an outdoor oven. Old-fashioned games and local folk traditions will add to the festive atmosphere.

The programme for the Van Eyck Year also includes readings, lectures, concerts and publications. Local historian Wim Lemmens will talk about his book De gebroders Van Eyck: Een geschiedenis rondom een monument (The Brothers Van Eyck: History of a Monument), which deals with contemporary politics and social developments at the time of the statue’s unveiling.

There’s even a cookbook, Koken met Van Eyck, compiled from the actual recipes used to prepare the royal banquet held on the occasion of the statue’s dedication in 1864.

An exhibition about Livina and the Sisters of St Agnes will be another focal point of Maaseik’s Van Eyck Year. Livina van Eyck: Een verborgen leven (A Hidden Life) will assemble, for the first time, objects and manuscripts from the convent and give visitors a glimpse into the life of spiritual devotion experienced by Livina and her fellow nuns.

Wim Corstjens, the chief organiser behind Maaseik’s Van Eyck Year, says that the city is ready to take its rightful place as one of Belgium’s so-called “Van Eyck cities”, along with Bruges and Ghent – places more famously associated with the life and work of the painters.

After all, the residents of Maaseik have long thought of Jan and Hubert as their most prominent fellow citizens, standing proudly in the centre of town, for 150 years. It’s time the rest of the world got to know the birthplace of these masters of Netherlandish art.

With the Van Eyck Year, Maaseik is letting the world know that it is ready to take its rightful place as one of Flanders’ Van Eyck cities.

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