Stealing the physics’ department thunder…and a little art room magic

Every year with my classes of first years (12 year olds) I spend part of a lesson looking at the Anolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. It is a beautiful painting from the 1430s. It is a fantastic example of van Eyck’s technical brilliance, it is also a painting loaded up with symbolic content, has an interesting narrative back story and contains unbelievable levels of painterly detail.  All good reasons to show it to the pupils.

arnolfiniThe question always comes up….’how did he do that?’. It’s a very understandable question to ask and one that British artist David Hockney also asked in his book and tv programme entitled Secret Knowledge that raised a similar point and gave particular attention to the hugely intricate chandelier that hangs at the centre of the painting.  It is a phenomenally complex object that has been rendered with an accuracy that it difficult to believe. The perspective of the decorative arms of the chandelier just looks so ‘correct’ as Hockney puts it.

Hockney’s theory is that van Eyck was an early user of a camera obscura to aid the drawing of this intricate structure.  The device makes an optical projection that could, just maybe have been allowed to fall on his canvas, thus allowing him the chance to simply trace over it.  It is a theory that I have to say I see as being very plausible.

I explain the theory to my first years, draw a diagram on the board and give them a basic physics lesson about the behaviour of light. Often I’m not completely sure if the whole class is ‘getting it’. So, I dash down the corridor to the physics department and borrow their camera obscura. I set it up, with its tracing paper screen overlooking the railway that runs past the classroom and invite the pupils to come and have a look. It’s a real ‘wow’ moment that follows!

Even in this world of mobile phones and huge LCD screens the projection the pupils see silences them. CinemaScope it certainly isn’t, however, using such basic materials I am able to create a projection quite unlike anything they have ever seen and something that gives a scientific insight into a way of working that Jan van Eyck, nearly 600 years ago may just have been making use of.