A Golden Engagement

Petrus Christus, a Northern Renaissance master
May 12, 2021 Updated: May 12, 2021

In the painting “A Goldsmith in His Shop,” a finely dressed couple are eagerly purchasing a wedding ring. The man tenderly wraps his arm around his fiancée, while she happily gestures to the goldsmith who is weighing a ring on a set of scales. The goldsmith, dressed in a rich-red robe, concentrates on his customer’s request as he prepares the ring for sale. 

Petrus Christus
“A Goldsmith in His Shop,” 1449, by Petrus Christus. Oil on oak panel; 39 3/8 inches by 33 3/4 inches. Robert Lehman Collection, 1975; Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

On the right side of the painting is a wall full of the goldsmith’s tools and the fruits of his trade. Each one is meticulously rendered. Elegant pewterware pitchers are displayed on the top shelf. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) website, these were created for the city’s aldermen, who would offer them to important guests. The bottom shelf displays an open purse of seed pearls, and on a cloth are many precious gems alongside a selection of rings displayed much like we’d see them in a shop today. On the bottom shelf, behind the gems, are some of the goldsmith’s raw materials: from left to right, crystal, porphyry (a rock containing large crystals), and coral. 

Petrus Christus
Rings, petwer pitchers, a string of pearls, and precious raw materials such as gems and minerals are all rendered beautifully by Petrus Christus in this detail from the painting “A Goldsmith in His Shop.” (Public Domain)

Some of the items in the painting look a little out of place, but they’re there to indicate the virtues of the couple’s pending matrimony. For instance, in the foreground, on the left side of the wooden bench with its wonderfully detailed grain, a discarded red girdle (like a belt) is near the woman. It is rendered as if to enter into the viewer’s space. The girdle traditionally symbolizes chastity and a readiness to serve, both seen as the contemporary ideals of a traditional marriage. 

Petrus Christus
“A Goldsmith in His Shop,” 1449, by Petrus Christus. Oil on oak panel; 39 3/8 inches by 33 3/4 inches. Robert Lehman Collection, 1975; Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

On the far right side of the workbench, a convex mirror reflects the outside world where, standing in front of a row of buildings, two falconers seem to peer into the goldsmith’s shop. The mirror indicates vanity, and the falconers represent pride and greed. It’s a symbolic warning of the vices that have no place in the bounds of a happy marriage. 

Some scholars believe that the painting is a portrait of the Bruges goldsmith Willem van Vleuten, who worked for the duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. In 1449, the year the painting was completed, the duke commissioned van Vleuten to create a gift for his great-niece, Mary of Guelders, to celebrate her marriage to James II, the king of Scotland. 

Researchers further reinforced the possibility that the painting is a portrait, as the artist, Petrus Christus, had corrected the goldsmith’s appearance several times in his underdrawing, indicating that he was creating someone’s likeness rather than an imaginary figure.  

Petrus Christus

Christus was a contemporary of the great Flemish painters Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. Born around 1420 in the Flemish town of Baerle, now in Belgium, Christus worked in Bruges (in the region of Flanders), which at that time was the leading center of Netherlandish art. 

For over 20 years, after van Eyck died in 1441 and before Hans Memling came to Bruges around 1465, Christus was the leading artist in Bruges.

Some sources believe that Christus studied in van Eyck’s studio, even finishing some of his master’s works when he died in 1441. His meticulously detailed paintings certainly mirror van Eyck’s fastidious paintings, but the brightness that van Eyck brought to his figures isn’t quite seen in Christus’s works. 

Nonetheless, Christus made important contributions to Northern Renaissance art. It is believed that he helped spread the Northern Renaissance style of painting to Italy. The pioneering style was defined by van Eyck’s use of layer upon layer of translucent glazes, resulting in the exceptional blending and detailing on his canvas.

It’s not known if Christus traveled to Italy himself, but his paintings certainly did. According to The Met’s website, nearly half of his known paintings were commissioned by Italians, have an Italian or Spanish provenance, or were known by Italian artists such as Anthony of Messina, who was highly influenced by Christus’s work.  

Art historian E.H. Gombrich explains the difference between Northern and Italian Renaissance art in his book “The Story of Art”:

“It is a fair guess to say that any work which excels in the representation of the beautiful surface of things, of flowers, jewels or fabric, will be by a Northern artist, most probably by an artist from the Netherlands; while a painting with bold outlines, clear perspective and a sure mastery of the beautiful human body, will be Italian.”

Christus mastered single-point perspective in his later paintings, perhaps by replicating perspective in Italian art owned by his patrons, according to The Met’s website. Some sources believe that his painting “The Virgin Enthroned With Saints Jerome and Francis,” at Frankfurt’s Städel Museum, is the earliest example of single-point perspective in Northern Renaissance art.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York owns five of the approximately thirty Petrus Christus paintings known to exist. To find out more, visit MetMuseum.org