Issue two | The Seven Sacraments

Focus room:

The Seven Sacraments

Issue two of M
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In the altarpiece ‘The Seven Sacraments’ (1440–1445), Rogier van der Weyden unites a jumble of scenes and figures into a single, clear composition in an incomparable way. M received this masterpiece on loan from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 2009. It has recently been given its own focus room in M.

A priest gives a child the very first sacrament of his life: baptism. He pours water over its head above the baptismal font in the presence of the parents, the godmother and the godfather. It was probably not pleasant for the baby, but for many Christians, it is considered the first step towards a place in heaven. In the focus room in M, there is a baptismal font from the former St Peter’s Hospital in Leuven.

The man with the white mitre is Bishop Jean Chevrot (1395–1460), who commissioned the altarpiece. Here he administers confirmation, a sacrament usually given at the onset of puberty, which reaffirms baptism.

Jean Chevrot is not the only contemporary of Van der Weyden to be portrayed here. The faces of many figures on the side panels are painted on wafer-thin sheets of tin, which were affixed to the wooden panel afterwards. Van der Weyden often worked this way: he made portraits of people in their homes, so that they did not have to travel to his studio in Brussels.

Here the priest takes confession: he listens to someone’s sins and forgives them in the name of God.

In the upper-left corner of each panel, you can see the coat of arms of Bishop Jean Chevrot. It was he who commissioned this work – and everyone could know it.


In the upper-right corner, you can see the coat of arms of Tournai, the city where Jean Chevrot was bishop. Coincidentally, it was also the birthplace of Rogier van der Weyden himself.

The figures in the nave are larger than those on the side panels. A well-considered choice, because it concerns the relatives and intimates of Jesus Christ himself. At the base of the cross, Mary begins to swoon; she is caught by John the Evangelist. The woman in red, probably Mary Magdalene, turns her gaze away and dries her tears with a cloth.

The priest consecrates the wafer in front of the altar as a representation of Holy Communion. This sacrament commemorates the suffering of Christ, who died on the cross to forgive human sins. It is no coincidence that this scene is depicted nearby.

From left to right:

  • A kneeling man is ordained as a priest.
  • Here, a priest blesses a marriage.
  • What began with baptism ends with extreme unction: the final sacrament before death.

In a few places in this painting, ‘chrismatoria’ can be seen: small boxes made of precious metals in which chrism or holy oil was stored, a mixture of olive oil and balm. This was used by priests when administering the sacraments. M holds a few exceptional silver chrismatories from Leuven churches, which are now on display in the focus room. The oldest dates from shortly after 1400 and is one of the earliest examples of the silversmith’s art in Brabant.

The focus room on ‘The Seven Sacraments’ is on view until 01.04.2022.

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