Not much is known about the personal life of Petrus Christus, this master artist who lived and worked in Bruges, Belgium, in the 15th century. Much of what is suggested about his training and career as a Netherlandish artist is theory and conjecture. The only solid records of his life are that of his receiving citizenship in Bruges in 1444, and the six signed and dated oil paintings that have survived this last half millennium.
His birthplace lies near Antwerp and Breda, in the town of Barle. He lived in Bruges at the same time as his contemporary, Jan van Eyck, and when van Eyck died in 1441, Christus was then able to acquire the workshop. Some speculate that he was a young pupil in van Eyck’s workshop, but tradition has it that his citizenship would have been given once he’d shown employment for “a year and a day”; Christus bought his citizenship three years after van Eyck’s death, which contradicts or at least muddies the waters in that theory.
Christus’ paintings do show that his style was influenced by van Eyck, but there are also clear influences in his work that may have come from three other artists, Rogier van der Weyden, Dirk Bouts and Robert Campin. Bouts and Campin were both Netherlandish painters, and van der Weyden was Flemish, and because all were alive at the time, they may have met or at least seen each other’s work first hand. It’s not certain if Christus traveled outside of Belgium, but there is a slight chance that he journeyed to Italy and not only was he influenced by other artists there, but he influenced the Italian arts also.
There is a documented record of a “Piero da Bruggia” visiting Milan around the same time as when artist Antonello da Messina lived there. There is a great similarity between Christus’ Portrait of a Man and Antonello’s portraits (including his self-portrait) when comparing them together. An important connection can be drawn between the changes in both Netherlandish painting and Italian painting styles that occurred during that time.
Prior to Christus’ visit to Milan, Italian painters had not used oil paints nor learned the techniques of producing oil paintings. Netherlandish painters had been using oil paints much before then, and it’s possible that Christus introduced the oil paints to Antonello and to Giovanni Bellini, as they were the first Italians to use them. Christus would have also, in turn, learned the Italian “linear perspective techniques". He was the first from the Netherlands to use linear perspective in his paintings, as in Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saint Francis and Jerome. The date on that particular painting is not legible, but it was possibly completed in 1457. The technique, from that time on, was soon taken up by the other Northern artists as they learned to successfully create linear perspective.
In addition to this, Christus’ Lamentation is a composition that closely resembles a marble relief by Antonello Gagini which is still in Palermo’s cathedral. Is it possible then, that Christus had seen the relief with his own eyes and had been inspired or commissioned to paint Lamentation for an Italian buyer? The speculations may have some basis, but we can never be certain. However Petrus Christus may have influenced 15th century art, we can only remain forever appreciative of the amazing artwork that he has left behind for us to admire.