[Image: Jan Van Eyck, Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele (1436), oil on panel, Groeningemuseum, Bruges]
Flemish Primitives in Bruges is a new book presenting paintings by Flemish painters from the Early and High Renaissance (also called the South (or Early) Netherlandish School). Till-Holger Borchert outlines the history of the city and how that affected the development of South Netherlandish painting. The story of art of the time is inextricably linked to the cloth trade in the Low Countries, especially in Flanders. The wealth and growing sophistication of the urban cloth merchants provided demand for religious objects of beauty and high cost. From around 1250 trade via the Hanseatic League, Baltic timber merchants and Flemish cloth merchants (aided by innovative Italian bankers) made the port city of Bruges an important hub for trade. With trade and wealth came culture. It was as part of the Burgundian state (the Duchy of Burgundy) that Bruges hosted the most advanced artists of the age. At this time the production of polychromed statuary, painted panels, painted furniture, manuscript illumination and book production were overlapping fields and makers often had multiple skills.
In 1431-2 Jan Van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) settled in Bruges, having moved from Ghent, where he had painted the Ghent Altarpiece with his now deceased brother Hubert. It has been suggested that whereas panel painting in Northern Italy became elevated over mere ornamentation due to the example of the fresco painting, it seems that the innovations in panel painting of the Van Eyck siblings Jan, Hubert, Lambert and Margaret derived from manuscript illustration. They may have trained as manuscript limners. (The famed manuscript illuminator Barthélemy d’Eyck (c. 1420-after 1470) was probably related to them.) The earliest painted panel here is from c. 1420. “Stylistically, there are interesting correspondences with Brabant painting, but also close links with Bruges manuscript illumination of the same period. Unfortunately, comparably early paintings in Bruges have not survived.” These paintings are only a fraction of art that adorned public and private places in the immediate pre-Reformation era. An earlier panel by Melchior Broederlam (c. 1350-after 1409), now housed in the Dijon, is illustrated. The skilful use of oil paint in this diptych of about 1396-9 is the forerunner to the Van Eycks’ advancement of the technique. Till-Holger Borchert writes, “The few surviving panel paintings that can be situated in Flanders with some probability – and did not originate in the immediate vicinity of the Burgundian court – are not sufficient in number to demonstrate the alleged continuity between the time of Van Eyck and the preceding period.”
Van Eyck’s achievements are well known and he was famous within his lifetime. Most Early Netherlandish painting springs directly from Van Eyck’s model. Exactly the competence of achievements and competence of his siblings is unknown as there are no firm attributions to anyone but Jan, with two pieces being attributed in part to Hubert. Jan’s authorship is secure because of his habit of signing and dating paintings.
Jan Van Eyck died in 1441 and his brother Lambert apparently continued the workshop for a time, at least finishing commissions and perhaps accepting new ones. In 1444 Petrus Christus (c. 1410-20-c. 1475/6) arrived in Bruges and became the leading painter of the following generation. His followed the Eyckian approach of elaborate detail, high finish, fidelity to nature and the production of large devotional paintings and small portraits, all painted in oil. He was also influenced by the Brussels painter Rogier van der Weyden. The German painter Hans Memling (c. 1430-1494) trained with Rogier in Brussels and moved to Bruges in 1465 and worked there until his death. His synthesis of Van Eyck and Rogier’s styles is considered the epitome of the Bruges School.
[Image: Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Woman (1480), oil on panel, Hopsital Museum, Bruges]
Gerard David (c. 1455-1523) trained in Gouda or Haarlem. In 1484 he became a member of the Guild of St Luke. His art represents an advance towards the High and Late Renaissance for the Bruges School. The chiaroscuro, naturalistic light and shade and subdued colours all mark a departure from the Netherlandish Early Renaissance. Although the facial physiognomies and clothing is distinctly Flemish, the pictorial language (and appearance) is now more Italianate and in line with Swiss, French and German painting of that time. The emerging Dutch style – within which David had developed – also exerted an influence on the painter, who arrived in Bruges as a master painter aged about 30. Borchert reports that David possibly travelled to Italy to install an altarpiece that was commissioned for an abbey in Liguria. “This would make him one of the first Flemish artists – before Joos van Cleve and Quinten Metsys – to be directly influenced by Italian painting. The journey could help explain the hitherto-unknown sfumato technique that characterized his later works […]”
There are many named masters to whom the many anonymous paintings cannot be connected, though undoubtedly these masters and paintings must overlap in authorship. Three of the most outstanding works are St Veronica presenting the Sudarium (c. 1495), the St Lucy paintings (1480) and Scenes from the Passion of Christ (1500). Other paintings have been associated with these masters and the process of teasing out the complicated and tenuous connections between pictures, painters and patrons continues today.
Later painters (Adriaen Isenbrant, Ambrosius Benson), influenced by David, are less noteworthy and have largely lost their Bruges character. An exception is Jan Provoost (c. 1465, who came from Hainaut (Mons). In 1494 he arrived in Bruges. In some ways Provoost owes more to Germanic painting than Early Netherlandish art. We can find touches of Grunewald and Bosch in his macabre Death and the Miser (c. 1515-21), where a wealthy merchant holds out a (promissory?) note to a skeletal Death.
Around 1500, the Zwin channel, which provided ships access to Bruges, began to silt up. Bruges lost status and income as trade moved to other cities, notably Antwerp. This led to artistic activity largely transferring to other cities. Bruges became a backwater. Happily, this neglect meant that there was a lack of funds for rebuilding, renovation and extensive alterations to the city layout, which caused the preservation of the centre of Bruges as a largely late Medieval city.
Borchert guides us through art of related centres of art production including Tournai, Artois, Ghent, Valenciennes, Brabant and ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Thus he discusses Rogier, Robert Campin, Jacques Daret and the mysterious Master of Flémalle, who may not have been a separate painter but rather the putative author of art by Campin, Rogier, Daret and others. Simon Marmion, Dieric Bouts, Bosch, Hugo van der Goes is mentioned in passing. All of these are presented with many illustrations and include recent scholarly conclusions about the activities of these artists.
The plates section shows the highlights of Bruges-related painters currently in the museums of Bruges. The paintings are located in the Goeningemuseum, Hospital Museum, Treasury of St Salvator’s Cathedral, Sint-Jacobskerk, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, our Lady’s Church, Museum van de Edele Confrérie van het Heilig Bloed, Grootseminarie and Public Library. Notable pictures include Jan Van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele (1436) and portrait of the artist’s wife, Memling’s Triptych of the Two Saints John (1479), a fine portrait diptych (with a Madonna and Child on one panel and a donor portrait on the other) and a painted and gilded reliquary in the shape of a shrine, David’s Triptych of the Baptism of Christ (1502-8) and the gruesome scene of the flaying of Judge Sisamnes (1498), Jan Provoost’s Crucifixion (1505-10), and van der Goes’s completion of Dieric Bouts’s unfinished Triptych of the Martyrdom of St Hippolytus (1475-80). The single oversight is the omission of dimensions and medium details (although one presumes they are all oil paint on panel).
In short (two-page) side discussions, the author describes the origins of oil painting technique (which made Early Netherlandish art so distinctive), the triptych format and social conventions of art donation for religious purposes. A bibliography is included. This guide will be of use to visitors to Bruges, those studying the Bruges School and anyone who likes the painting of the Early and High Renaissance in the Low Countries.
Till-Holger Borchert, Flemish Primitives in Bruges, Ludion, 2019, paperback, 128pp, fully illus., English language version (Dutch and French versions available), €19, ISBN 978 9 493039117
© 2019 Alexander Adams
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