Art Unwrapped

This special exhibition takes an iconic work from the Ulster Museum’s collection, and gives it pride of place in the heart of the city and as a gift to its citizens for the Christmas period.

This year, art Unwrapped will present “St. Matthew” by Jan van Bijlert, (1597/8-1671), a much-loved piece and one of his most famous paintings.

More about the painting

Like many events this year, Art Unwrapped is a little different due to the restrictions of Covid-19.

In this, its third year, the exhibition has moved online.

Jan van Bijlert (1598-1671

Saint Matthew and the Angel

  Oil on canvas, purchased in 1969

One of the treasures of the Ulster Museum collection, ‘St Matthew and the Angel’ was painted by the Dutch artist Jan van Bijlert in the late 1620s. St Matthew was one of the four Evangelists and his gospel is the first book of the New Testament.

In the history of art many saints are identified by symbols and St Matthew is usually shown with the Angel who inspired and directed his writing and a book representing his gospel.

Jan van Bijlert spent most of his career in the Dutch city of Utrecht, an ancient ecclesiastical centre which had grown rich from trade. Utrecht had a long history of commercial connections throughout Europe and many artists from the city travelled to Italy to study painting.

In the early 1620s van Bijlert lived with a group of other young Utrecht artists in Rome. There he studied the work of Caravaggio who was revolutionising the art of painting through his dramatic use of light and shade and models drawn from street and everyday life.

This new style of painting, which gave an intense realism to traditional religious subjects, was brought back to Utrecht, where Bijlert and his associates became known as the Utrecht Caravaggisti, or followers of Caravaggio.

In Bijlert’s St Matthew, Caravaggio’s influence can be found in the carefully observed textures of skin and hair and the tender intimacy shown between the aged evangelist and the young angel.

The most famous of all Dutch artists, Rembrandt, did not visit Italy however his highly original understanding of the effects of light and use of everyday models owes its evolution, in part, to the influence of the Utrecht Caravaggisti.

From Painting to Poetry…

“50ml of India Ink”

Opaque, & black as gravity,
the ink is perfectly unlike

the small glass pot
whose shape it occupies

so passively. It is
something’s burnt remains

that makes it black.
It is the sticky leavings

of the lac-bug
that makes it shine.

(The name of the lac-bug
has nothing to do

with absence, but means,
in fact, a multitude.)

It performs its tiny fractal
creep through the paper’s

knitted capillaries,
& finds itself astounded

with significance. It means

I am not yet dead.

I was not untempted
to leave this blank.

By
Padraig Regan

Inspiration/Context

There is a moment in Troilus and Criseyde when Chaucer rhymes ‘write’ with ‘endite’. Both of these words have their modern equivalents in the verb ‘to write’, but in Chaucer’s Middle English their meanings are different. ‘Endite’, which derives ultimately from the Latin verb ‘dicto’, refers to the mental process of composition, that is, the arrangement of units of meaning; whereas ‘write’ brings with it its Old English source ‘wrītan’, and denotes the mechanical act of shaping symbols on a material surface.

Something interesting happens when we encounter these words as a rhyming pair; we notice both the differences and similarities of the words and the actions they signify, and we are reminded of their mutual dependence. I also can’t help but notice that what connects these two words sonically is an ‘I’; after all what is writing but an assertion of embodied presence in the world.

Jan van Bijlert’s Saint Matthew and the Angel seems to animate the same tensions as Chaucer’s rhyme. In his left hand, the angel holds a pot of ink, so luxuriously black it registers as a void in the image. The position of the angel’s left arm is mirrored by that of Saint Matthew’s right.

Crucially, the pen Matthew holds is hovering separate from either the inkpot or the page, but the pen’s black tip and the lines of text already present on the page imply recent contact. As with most pictures, it is interesting to think about what the figures are looking at. The angel’s eyes are directed at Matthew, but Matthew seems to be looking at neither the angel nor the text he is writing (nor is he addressing the viewer).

Instead, he is gazing at something outside the picture, or at nothing at all. It is as if we have caught him in a moment familiar (I presume) to all writers; when you lift your head from whatever surface you are working on to look for wherever the next word might come from. We presume that in the next moment the pen will make contact with the ink, and then the page, and then the event of writing will happen, but, this being a painting, that moment, that coming-into-being, is deferred indefinitely.

Pen Pic - Padraig Regan

Padraig Regan lives in Belfast and is currently studying for an MA at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queens University. Padraig won an Eric Gregory Award in 2015 while a student at the Seamus Heaney Centre (Queen’s University Belfast), and is the author of two pamphlets, Who Seemed Alive & Altogether Real (Emma Press, 2017) and Delicious (Lifeboat, 2016).

4 Videos & 4 Associated Scripts

"Utrecht - A City and its Artists" - Reuben Brown

"The Utrecht Caravaggisti" - Katie Hassett

"Jan Van Bijlert and the Utrecht Caravaggisti" - Darcy Patterson

The Influence of Caravaggio on Jan van Bijlert by Hannah Hewitt

"The Utrecht Caravaggisti by Brea Freeburn