St Eligius in His Workshop
Oil on wood, 98 x 85 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Three figures in a narrow interior. The convex mirror shows two
men standing on the street outside. Like the spectator, they are
gazing into the picture space: a goldsmith's workshop. Guild
regulations demanded a shop be open to the street so that customers
could assure themselves that a smith was not guilty of doctoring his
The goldsmith is painted in the act of weighing a ring; a young,
richly dressed couple looks on attentively. However, the eyes of the
goldsmith are not focused on the scales in his hand but raised in an
upward gaze. He is more than an ordinary artisan: he is the patron
saint of goldsmiths, St. Eligius.
The artist has added a Latin inscription to the bottom edge of the
98 x 85 cm panel. Translated, it reads: "Petrus Christus made me in
the year 1449." This was unusual in the 15th century; artists tended
to remain anonymous and rarely dated their paintings. Little is
known of the artist's life: he acquired the citizenship of Bruges on
6th July 1444; in 1462 he joined a brotherhood; he is mentioned
seven years later as a distinguished member of the artists' guild,
which also registered his death in 1473.
Petrus Christus was born at Baerle, probably in 1415. It is thought
he may have been the pupil of Jan van Eyck (c. 1370— 1441), and that
he completed works left unfinished by the master at his death before
founding his own workshop, for which he was obliged to acquire
citizenship. 1449, the year in which he painted St. Eligius, also
saw the dedication in Bruges of the Chapel of Smiths, the guild to
which goldsmiths belonged. Perhaps this event occasioned Petrus
Christus's painting of St. Eligius in his workshop.
In the 19th century the painting entered the collection of a German
who claimed to have bought it from a Dutchman. The Dutchman had
apparently claimed to be the sole surviving member of the Antwerp
Goldsmiths' Guild. Antwerp had overtaken Bruges as a centre of trade
and commerce in the late 15th century. Perhaps the painting followed
the flow of money. Today it is in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.
The painting is a devotional work, but it also served as a kind of
advertisement for the goldsmiths' craft and guild. Behind the pious
man, Petrus Christus has arrayed a selection of rings, silver
pitchers, a chain, brooches and pearls -luxury goods for which, in
the year 1449, there was considerable demand in the wealthy town of
Bruges. At that time the town belonged to the Duchy of Burgundy, a
kingdom amassed in three generations by the French dukes of Valois,
extending from the French province of Burgundy, which bordered with
Switzerland, to the North Sea. Its commercial capital, and indeed
that of the whole of northern Europe, was Bruges. Ships sailed here
from the Mediterranean, England and the Hanseatic ports. Bruges was
a busy overseas trading centre for timber, cereals, furs and dried
cod from the north, and for wine, carpets, silks and spices from the
south. In one day in 1457, Bruges's harbour on the Zwijn at Sluis
contained two Spanish and 42 British caravels, three Venetian
galleys, a Portuguese hulk and twelve sailing ships from Hamburg.
These were good times -not least for producers of luxury goods.
The merchants of the day devoted special attention to weighing
goods, for different countries used different units of measurement
and fear of fraud 'was widespread. In 1282, the merchants of the
Hanse had managed to have one of their own weighing scales,
constructed in Lubeck, set up in Bruges. That a saint should be
painted in the act of weighing, in which trust played such an
essential part, rather than executing some other form of work, is
probably no coincidence.
Trade attracted finance, and Italian banks chose Bruges as a base
for their northern branches. The gold coins of many nations
circulated in the town. On the saint's counter can be seen gulden
from Mainz, English angels and, of course, the heavy "riders" of
Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy (1396-1467), regent during Petrus
From blacksmith to minister
St Eligius in His Workshop
Even today Saint Eligius is well-known to French-speaking
children as "grand Saint Eloi" who, in a popular ditty, informs
absent-minded king Dagobert that he has his trousers on
back-to-front, to which the king replies that he will just have to
turn them back round again then. In one sense at least the song is
based on historical fact: Eligius really did act as personal adviser
to the Merovingian King Dagobert.
Eloi, or Eligius, was born at Limoges in c. 588, completed an
apprenticeship as a goldsmith and soon gained a reputation as a
thrifty and skilful craftsman. Commissioned by the court to make a
throne, Eligius, using the precious materials, gold and jewels
provided, managed to produce two, whereupon the king appointed him
minister and master of the mint. A coin, the "sou de Paris", bore
his signature. Because Eligius was very pious, Dagobert also
appointed him Bishop of the Diocese of Noyon, which included Bruges.
As a bishop he is said to have led a lapsed population back to the
Church. He founded several monasteries and chapels, and three
churches in Bruges alone.
A number of miracles were ascribed to him, greatly strengthening his
hand as a missionary. He is said to have started out as a
blacksmith. When brought a particularly wild horse to shoe one day,
so legend has it, he severed the horse's foot, fitted it with a new
shoe, and put it back on again, whereupon the horse cantered
friskily away. It became a custom on the saint's feast day on 1st
December to provide large quantities of wine for the blacksmiths and
everybody who worked in the stables.
Rather than displaying him in episcopal robes, Petrus Christus
paints the saint in the clothes worn by the citizens who were his
customers. Eligius became the patron saint of blacksmiths,
goldsmiths and money changers. These shared a common chapel and
marched together at processions under the banner of the blacksmiths,
whose guild, though possibly not the most elegant, was certainly the
The guilds emerged in the Netherlandish townships of the 14th
century. Their purpose was to prevent ruinous competition, to
guarantee high standards of workmanship and represent the interests
of craftsmen. Thus goldsmiths were required to work at an open
window but forbidden — according to a 14th-century Netherlandish
document — to draw attention to themselves or canvass custom by
"sneezing or sniffling". They were also bound to confine their
business practice to one place. Each guild had its own religious
superstructure with a patron saint and, if wealthy enough, an altar
or chapel of its own.
The medieval guilds of Bruges, like those of other towns, made a
decisive contribution to the city's rise and fall. Originally
progressive associations became clubs for the defence of privilege.
Closing their ranks to new members and new methods of production,
they constantly quarrelled with other guilds and thus were
responsible for sapping the strength of the citizens' council,
which, in turn, made it easier for the Dukes of Burgundy to bind the
townsfolk to their will. When a revolt against the Duke's policies
failed in 1436/37, the citizens were forced to beg on their knees
By 1494, half a century after Petrus Christus painted his portrait
of St. Eligius, "trade in Bruges had come to a standstill". Some
4000 to 5000 houses were left behind - "empty, locked up or ruined".
The merchants and bankers moved to the more flexible town of
Antwerp, where medieval guild regulations were no longer applied in
quite such a narrow-minded manner.
Rich and famous customers
St Eligius in His Workshop (detail)
A ring, reputedly made by Eligius for St. Godeberta, was once
kept at the Noyon Cathedral treasury (Eligius see).
Wealthy suitors are said to have competed for Godeberta's hand, but
her parents could not decide without the consent of the king, who
may well have been interested in the girl himself. The matter was in
council before the king when Eligius intervened with his golden
ring, declaring the young woman to be a bride of Christ. Religious
critics have inferred that the painting alludes to the legend. But
rather than painting the saint as an opponent of worldly marriage,
it is more likely, and probably far more in keeping with the
patron's interests, that the artist wished to show him as a
supporter and guardian of marriage. After all, the manufacture of
wedding rings was a lucrative department of the goldsmith's trade.
Eligius is seen weighing a ring in the painting. A traditional
wedding girdle lies on the counter in front of the couple.
It is unknown whether the work - like Jan van Eyck's "Arnolfini"
portrait - is the depiction of a particular couple. Both persons
wear sumptuous, fashionable clothes only members of the Burgundian
duke's court could afford, or the few wealthy burghers who mixed
with the aristocracy. The lady's gold brocade with its exotic
pomegranate pattern probably came from Italy; her golden bonnet is
embroidered with pearls. Following a trend set by the duke,
courtiers were richly adorned with jewellery. The lady's fiance
wears not only a heavy gold chain but a brooch pinned to his
elegantly bound headgear. He may well have been one of the
goldsmith's better customers.
However, the Bruges jewellers' best customer was the Duke himself.
In 1456 French visitors reported never having "seen the like of such
wealth or such brilliance" as witnessed at the Burgundian court, and
one chronicler described Philip the Good as "the richest prince of
his day". Every object he used, from his cup to his toothpick, was
made of solid gold, and he possessed a large collection of precious
stones, brooches, rings and clasps.
Not only was his festive table opulently laid for banquets, but
tables along the walls, piled with plates and dishes and guarded by
members of the goldsmith's guild, made a deliberate display of
costly tableware owned by the Duke. A salt-cellar decorated with
sirens was considered an especially valuable piece. It was valued at
about 900 ducats, the equivalent of approximately 200 times the
yearly wage of a craftsman.
There was a degree of pragmatism in this ostentation. Gold and
silver demonstrated wealth, and wealth was an important pillar of
power. Moreover, symbols of power had to be readily transportable,
for like all great potentates, the Burgundian dukes were highly
mobile, travelling constantly from one residence to the next. The
treasure was carried from place to place, and it was quite common
for services to be rewarded not with money, but with golden dishes,
jewel-encrusted boxes or solid gold chains. In a manner of speaking,
a goldsmith produced disposable assets.
Gems as a protection against poison
St Eligius in His Workshop (detail)
Probably the most valuable of the artefacts ranged on the
workshop's shelves were the tiny, dark, trowel-like objects pinned
to the wall on thin gold chains. They were called "adder's tongues"
or "glossopetrae"; in fact they were fossilized sharks' teeth. They
were supposed to detect poison by changing colour on contact. In
view of their importance "touchstones" like this were given an
appropriately showy setting. The preference for drinking from
coconut-shell goblets was based on a belief that the exotic fruit
had the property of a counter-poison. A vessel of this kind can be
seen on one of the shelves, half concealed by a curtain. The demand
for "touchstones" was great, for princes led dangerous lives. Both
Philip's father and his uncle were assassinated. Rumours of attempts
to poison various other members of his family abounded, and there
was evidence of an attempt to poison Philip's heir, Charles the
Bold, in 1461. Rulers had servants whose job was to taste the food
before they ate it, thus protecting them against poisoning. The
vessels from which their food was served were covered by special
lids to prevent anything being added en route between kitchen and
table. The "privilege of lids" was a form of protection enjoyed
solely by the ruling princes of the day.
Most of the objects on the goldsmith's shelves served a dual
purpose: they were not only jewels, but a means of warding off evil.
Magical qualities were ascribed to branching coral; it was supposed
to stop haemorrhages. Rubies were said to help against putrefaction
and sapphires to heal ulcers; the two oblong articles leaning
against the wall were probably touchstones. Above them are brooches,
a rosary of coral and amber and a golden buckle that would fit the
wedding girdle. The vessel of gold and glass next to the branching
coral was probably used to keep relics or consecrated communion
Religion, magic and symbolism have lent a particular aura to the art
of the goldsmith. Besides their value and magical powers, precious
stones were also seen as symbols of continuity and longevity. Gold
was considered the quintessence of worldly riches, as well as a
symbol of power. Whoever held power over the Germanic tribes gained
possession of their golden treasure, as we know from the myth of the
Tradition granted goldsmiths a special status as craftsmen. During
the early Middle Ages they worked only for the church and for
rulers, who were thought to rule by the authority of God. The most
famous 13th-century goldsmith was a monk. In some Catholic regions
the prestige enjoyed by goldsmiths may have survived to this day. A
play published in 1960, for example, contains the figure of a
goldsmith with highly unusual abilities and a particularly piercing
gaze, a "marvellous" maker of wedding rings. "My gold balance", he
explains, "does not weigh metal but the life and lot of human beings
..." The play, entitled "The Goldsmith's Shop", was even turned into
a film. Its author, Karol Wojtyla, became Pope John Paul II.
St Eligius in His Workshop (detail)
Self-portrait in a mirror
The weights for the hand-scales were evidently stacked
inside one another and stored in the round receptacle with
the open lid lying on the counter. The gold coins next to
them may allude to the office held by Eligius: Master of the
Royal Mint. In the 15th century Eligius was also the patron
saint of moneychangers, an important profession in the
banking town of Bruges; they also formed a sub-section of
the goldsmiths' guild.
The convex mirror to the right of the coins reflects several
of Bruges's characteristic red-brick houses. The two men
outside the open shop-front are painted approximately where
we might expect a spectator of the painting to stand. The
trick with the mirror allows the artist to present a view
taken simultaneously from within and without, enabling him
to show what lies in front of and behind the imaginary
spectator. The problem of spatial organization seems to have
fascinated him. However, to judge by the angles of the
shelves, the Bruges master was not acquainted with the
mathematical laws of perspective recently discovered in
Florence. Petrus Christus was still experimenting.
Convex mirrors, sometimes called "witches" for their
"magical" powers, were frequently found in Netherlandish
households; hung opposite a window, they could make a room
brighter. Jan van
Eyck paints a mirror of this kind in his "Arnolfini"
portrait. Since it is probable that Petrus Chrisms was
apprenticed to the older master, the mirror in the present
painting may be a "quotation". As
mirror is presumed to show his own reflection, the present
painting may equally contain a likeness of Petrus Christus
in the figure of the man with the falcon, whose head is
tilted in an attitude frequently found in self-portraits.
Falconry was a favourite pastime at the Burgundian court,
and falcons were imported from far and wide. For an artist
like Petrus Christus, however, the sport would have been
much too costly; he probably held a menial position at
Jan van Eyck
Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife
National Gallery, London
Although the artist signed and dated this painting, his
biography has remained something of an enigma to historians.
The heart-shaped sign next to his signature may be a
"master's trademark" such as was used in Bruges not by
painters but by miniaturists and goldsmiths. Perhaps the
artist was trained in one of these crafts. The biographies
of several Renaissance painters, most notably
refer to their apprenticeship to goldsmiths. If this were
also true of Petrus Chnstus, it would explain his
relationship to St. Eligius and the artefacts, painted so
accurately, in his shop.
Many of these objects had a short life. They were used by
powerful people as a form of cash payment. Depending on the
needs of their new owners, they might then be taken apart or
recast - much to the joy of the goldsmith, to whom it meant
more work, and much to his sorrow at seeing his work done in
vain. It is known that at least one goldsmith despaired to
such an extent at the destruction of his artefacts that he
threw in his trade and entered a monastery.
Little, too, has survived of the treasures once owned by the
dukes of Burgundy. The last of the dukes, Charles the Bold,
was defeated in Switzerland in 1476. The treasure he had
with him at the time fell into the hands of Swiss goatherds
who had no use for it. They sold the "Burgundian booty"
below value, breaking the pearls and diamonds out of their
settings and melting down the gold to make them easier to