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Discovery in Vatican tribunal archives sheds light on life of mysterious Flemish painter

Only 20 paintings can be attributed to Jan van Eyck, yet they are enough for him to be considered one of the greatest artists in history.

Very little can be said definitively about his life, such as the year he was born, which is estimated to have been around 1390.

Director, Bruges State Archives (Belgium) 

"We know that he existed, we know that some of his paintings were commissioned by some persons, we know that he was working for the Duke of Burgundy,... But a lot of other interesting things about him is in fact speculation. For example where he was born, and where he lived before he came to Bruges and so on; how he died."

Hendrik Callewier is the director of the Bruges State Archives in Belgium, and he has just made a surprising discovery. 

While conducting research in the archives of the Vatican's Apostolic Penitentiary, one of the Holy See's three ordinary tribunals, he came across this brief text written in Latin....

“May Your Holiness be deemed worthy to grant Jan van Eyck and Margaretha, his wife, from the diocese of Liège, perpetual confessional letters”

The two lines shed some light on the mysterious life of the Flemish painter. 

Director, Bruges State Archives (Belgium)

“It is the first time that he and his wife are mentioned together in a document, the first and the only time....It also says they both originated from diocese of Liege, which is also new because everything we know about Van Eyck and his place of origin is, in fact, speculation or information that is given after his death.”

The document is a formal request sent to Pope Eugene IV, asking him to allow the artist to confess to any priest. At that time, one could only confess to the priest of their own parish. 

It is significant since it was written in 1441, only a few months before his death. 

Director, Bruges State Archives (Belgium)

“In Bruges, little time before he wrote to Rome, there is a plague, lot of people died, and perhaps he was getting afraid he would also get ill, or he was already ill when he asked for this letter.”

The discovery sheds some light on the life of this artist and offers a chance to look back on the 20 surviving paintings that are attributed to the great Flemish painter.  

It is impossible to see all of his works together, but they can be viewed online in stunning high definition.

Original Document: Vatican City, Apostolic Penitentiary Archive, Reg. Matrim. et Divers. 2, f. 165v.