Hubert was the oldest of the Van Eyck family of painters.
The date of his birth and the records of his progress are lost amidst the ruins of the earlier civilization of the valley of the Meuse. He was born about 1366, at Maeseyck (now Maaseik, Belgium), under the shelter or protection of a Benedictine convent, in which art and letters had been cultivated from the beginning of the 8th century.
But after a long series of wars—when the country became insecure, and the schools which had flourished in the towns decayed—he wandered to Flanders, and there for the first time gained a name. As court painter to the hereditary prince of Burgundy, and as client to one of the richest of the Ghent patricians, Hubert is celebrated. Here, in middle age, between 1410 and 1420, he signalized himself as the inventor of a new method of painting. Here he lived in the pay of Philip of Charolais till 1421. Here he painted pictures for the corporation, whose chief magistrates honoured him with a state visit in 1424.
His principal masterpiece, the "Adoration of the Lamb" (see picture below), commissioned by Jodocus Vijdts, lord of Pamele, is the noblest creation of the Flemish school, a piece of which we possess all the parts dispersed from St Bavon in Ghent to the galleries of Brussels and Berlin,—one upon which Hubert laboured till he died, leaving it to be completed by his brother Jan van Eyck. Almost unique as an illustration of contemporary feeling for Christian art, this great composition can only be matched by the ”Fount of Salvation,” in the museum of Madrid. It represents, on numerous panels, Christ on the judgment seat, with the Virgin and St John the Baptist at His sides, hearing the songs of the angels, and contemplated by Adam and Eve, and, beneath him, the Lamb shedding His blood in the presence of angels, apostles, prophets, martyrs, knights and hermits. On the outer sides of the panels are the Virgin and the angel annunciate, the sibyls and prophets who foretold the coming of the Lord, and the donors in prayer at the feet of the Baptist and Evangelist. After this great work was finished it was placed, in 1432, on an altar in St Bavon of Ghent, with an inscription on the framework describing Hubert as “maior quo nemo repertus,” and setting forth, in colours as imperishable as the picture itself, that Hubert began and Jan afterwards brought it to perfection.
Jan van Eyck certainly wished to guard against an error which ill-informed posterity showed itself but too prone to foster, the error that he alone had composed and carried out an altarpiece executed jointly by Hubert and himself. His contemporaries may be credited with full knowledge of the truth in this respect, and the facts were equally well known to the duke of Burgundy or the chiefs of the corporation of Bruges, who visited the painter's house in state in 1432, and the members of the chamber of rhetoric at Ghent, who reproduced the Agnus Dei as a tableau viva at in 1456. Yet a later generation of Flemings forgot the claims of Hubert, and gave the honours that were his due to his brother John exclusively.
The solemn grandeur of church art in the 15th century never found, out of Italy, a nobler exponent than Hubert van Eyck. His representation of Christ as the judge, between the Virgin and St John, affords a fine display of realistic truth, combined with pure drawing and gorgeous colour, and a happy union of earnestness and simplicity with the deepest religious feeling. In contrast with earlier productions of the Flemish school, it shows a singular depth of tone and great richness of detail. Finished with surprising skill, it is executed with the new oil medium, of which Hubert shared the invention with his brother, but of which no rival artists at the time possessed the secret— a medium which consists of subtle mixtures of oil and varnish applied to the moistening of pigments after a fashion, only kept secret for a time from guildsmen of neighbouring cities, but unrevealed to the Italians till near the close of the 15th century.
When Hubert died on the ?8th of September 1426 he was buried in the chapel on the altar of which his masterpiece was placed. According to a tradition as old as the 16th century, his arm was preserved as a relic in a casket above the portal of St Bavon of Ghent.
During a life of much apparent activity and surprising successes he taught the elements of his art to his brother Jan, who survived him.
See also: Early Renaissance painting