Arts: Magical Realism ; Jan Van Eyck's Style of Painting Seemed Miraculous to His Contemporaries. Divine, Even. Then They Tried to Copy It. as a New Exhibition Devoted to the Artist and His Influence Opens, TOM LUBBOCK Considers His Extraordinary Skill

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Sometimes a piece of art strikes perfection. There is no imaginable room for improvement. It hits the nail on the head. In the foreground of Jan van Eyck's The Virgin and Child with Saints Donatian and George and Canon Joris van der Paele (1436), there's a length of richly patterned carpet. It descends the two front steps of the Virgin's throne, and stretches across the tiled floor to the front of the picture. It's not necessarily the first thing that catches the eye in this scene. There are four substantial figures in very striking and contrasting costumes, who may have prior claims on your attention. But when it does, the eye is well and truly caught.

This piece of carpet is bafflingly real. The texture of the woven fabric appears to be the thing itself. Realism of this completeness is disorienting. Most depiction involves a half-conscious collaboration between the image and the viewer's imagination. You know you're partly making the going, sustaining the picture. But here it seems your collaboration isn't needed. The image does it all, beyond your help, beyond your grasp. You can only gawp.

What makes it so real? Things like the slightly variable densities of the stitching, the slight variations in the way (brushed this way or that) the threads catch the light, the way the weave "cracks" slightly where the carpet bends at the ridge of a step, the faultless handling of the pattern (it contains circles) in perspective, especially where the carpet goes down the steps, with the thick fabric lying not in sharp right-angles but in slightly corner-cutting curves. And "slightly" is the operative word. At every point, the trick involves minute modulations of painting that persuade the eye of the presence of even tinier minutiae, a mass of numberless threads, a world of particles beyond the reach of a paintbrush but which a paintbrush has miraculously summoned.

Van Eyck's achievement certainly seemed miraculous to contemporaries, a work beyond human powers - more divine than human, not made by human hand, created by nature itself. Old art criticism often has a strain of formulaic hyperbole. But there is no reason to distrust these reactions, because they are still our own - and we've had almost 600 more years of realism in various forms to dull our impressionability. At the start of the 15th century, it was a perfect novelty. The impact must have been staggering, not least because of the suddenness of its appearance in Flemish painting. There's no long run-up to this level of pictorial illusion. It arrives fully realised - and it remains unsurpassed. Van Eyck started it and Van Eyck finished it. And then everyone else tried to do it, too.

Look at that carpet, or at the gleaming gold-thread embroidery on St Donatian's cope - or look at the embrasure of daylight in The Arnolfini Marriage in the National Gallery - and you can understand the subject of the exhibition at the Groeninge Museum in Bruges. What artist, what patron, wouldn't want a piece of this action? Jan van Eyck, Early Netherlandish Painting and Southern Europe (1430- 1530) traces the rapid export of the new realism from Flanders - then in the Duchy of Burgundy - to Naples, to Venice, to France, Spain and Portugal. This is a story of trans-European communication, through trade and travel, with an international cast of artists. North meets south. Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden, Petrus Christus, Gerard David, Dierick Bouts, Hugo van der Goes and Hans Memling hang among Antonella da Messina, Fra Angelico, Giovanni Bellini, Piero di Cosimo, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Pietro Perugino. The north, on this occasion, is setting the agenda.

The show has a good measure of Van Eyck. His surviving output is meagre (a couple of dozen paintings in all) and about a third is here. As well as the Groeninge Museum's own Virgin and Child with Joris van der Paele and portrait of his wife Margaret van Eyck, there are some little-seen but remarkable pictures, such as St Francis in Ecstasy from Milan (what robes! …