III. SPARKLING BURGUNDY: 1363–1465

Despite such deprecating Thomases, the provinces under Burgundian rule indulged in considerable intellectual activity. The dukes themselves—Philip the Good above the rest—collected libraries and encouraged literature and art. Schools multiplied, and the University of Louvain, founded in 1426, wa soon among the leading educational centers of Europe. Georges Castellain’ Chronique des ducs de Bourgogne recorded the history of the duchy with rhetorical effulgence and a minimum of philosophy, but in a vigorous French that shared with Froissart and Comines in forming that favorite medium of clear and graceful prose. Private groups organized Chambers of Rhetoric (Rederijkers) for contests in oratory and poetry and the performance of plays. The two languages of the realm—the French or Romance of the Walloons in the south and the German dialects of the Flemings and Dutch in the north—rivaled each other in producing poets who repose in the peace of oblivion.

The supreme expression of the duchy was in art. Antwerp began in 1352 its vast, many-aisled cathedral, and finished it in 1518; Louvain raised the beautifully proportioned St. Pierre—another casualty of the second World War. Men and cities were so rich that they could afford mansions or town halls almost as magnificent as the churches that they conceded to God. The bishops who governed Liège housed themselves and their administrative staff in the largest and most elegant palace in the Lowlands. Ghent built its guildhall in 1325, Brussels its town hall in 1410–55, Louvain in 1448–63; Bruges added its hotel de ville in 1377–1421, and crowned it with a world-famous belfry (1393–96) that served as a landmark to mariners far out at sea. While these noble Gothic structures expressed the pride of cities and merchants, the dukes and aristocracy of Burgundy financed for their palaces and tombs a brilliant outburst of sculpture, painting, and manuscript illumination. Flemish artists, frightened from France by war, flocked back to their own cities. Philip the Bold gathered a veritable pleiad of geniuses to adorn his summer residence at the Chartreuse de Champmol—a Carthusian monastery in the “gentle field” adjoining Dijon.

In 1386 Philip commissioned Jean de Marville to design for him an elaborate mausoleum in the Chartreuse. When Marville died (1389) Claus Sluter of Holland continued the work; when Sluter died (1406) his pupil Claus de Werve carried on; at last (1411) the tomb was completed, and received the bones of the Duke, now seven years dead. In 1793 a revolutionary assembly at Dijon ordered the dismantling of the great sepulcher, and its components were scattered or destroyed. In 1827 the communal fathers, breathing a reverse political breeze, collected the remaining pieces, and housed them in the Dijon Museum. The Duke and his Duchess, Marguerite of Flanders, lie in handsome alabaster on a massive marble slab; and below them forty pleurant figures—sole survivors of the ninety carved—mourn the ducal death in silent and graceful grief. For the portal of the chapel at the Chartreuse, Sluter and his pupils (1391–94) chiseled out five superb figures: the Virgin receiving the homage of Philip and Marguerite, presented to her by John the Baptist and St. Catherine of Alexandria. In the courtyard Sluter set up his master work, the Puits de Moïse, Well of Moses: a pedestal bearing statues of Moses, David, Jeremiah, Zachariah, Isaiah, and Daniel, originally surmounted by a “calvary” or crucifixion scene, of which nothing remains but a somber, noble head of Christ crowned with thorns. No sculpture of such masculine power and unique audacity had been seen in Europe since the best days of Roman art.

The painters formed as remarkable a dynasty as the sculptors. The miniaturists still found patrons: Count William of Hainaut paid well for the illumination of Les tres belles heures de Nôtre Dame (c. 1414);* and the unknown genius (perhaps Hubert van Eyck) set a model and pace for a thousand Lowland landscape artists by depicting with microscopic zeal a port with ships beached or in full sail, passengers disembarking, sailors and longshoremen at their diverse tasks, waves breaking on a crescent shore, white clouds moving stealthily across the sky—all in the space of a picture card. In 1392 Melchior Broederlam of Y pres brightened the Chartreuse de Champmol with the oldest significant panel extant outside of Italy. But Broederlam and the artists who painted the walls and statuary of the monastery used traditional tempera—mixing their colors with some gelatinous material. Nuances of shading and tint, and translucency of tone, were hardly attainable by these means, and moisture could ruin the finished work. As early as 1329 Jacques Compère of Ghent had experimented with colors mixed in oil. Through a hundred years of trial and error the Flemings developed the new technique; and in the first quarter of the fifteenth century it revolutionized pictorial art. When Hubert van Eyck and his younger brother Jan painted The Adoration of the Lamb for the cathedral of St. Bavon at Ghent, they not only established the superiority of oil as a vehicle of color; they produced one of the supreme masterpieces in the history of painting, for whose sake St. Bavon has been a goal of pilgrimage ever since.

In form this greatest of fifteenth-century paintings—this “pivot of the history of the art,” Goethe called it9—is a folding polyptych of six panels, painted on wood, with twelve pictures on each side; opened, it is eleven feet high, fourteen feet wide. In the center of the lower row is an imaginary countryside, with a city of majestic towers—the Heavenly Jerusalem—rising in the distance beyond the hills; in the foreground a well of the Water of Life; farther back an altar whereon a lamb symbolizing Christ pours out its sacrificial blood, while patriarchs and prophets, Apostles and martyrs, angels and saints, gather around in rapt adoration. In the upper center a throned figure, looking like some benevolent Semitic Charlemagne, is designated as God the Father—a naturally inadequate representation of deity, but a noble conception of a wise ruler and just judge. It is surpassed, in this painting, by only one figure—the Virgin, a soft-featured, blond Teutonic type not so much of beauty as of purity and modesty; the Sistine Madonna is less nobly conceived. On Mary’s left is a group of angels; at the extreme left a naked Adam, thin and sad, “remembering in misery a happy time.” To the right of God the Father is John the Baptist, very sumptuously robed for a shepherd preaching in the wilderness. At the extreme right stands a naked Eve, somber and hardly fair, mourning paradise lost; she for a time, like Adam at the other end, shocked a chilly Flanders unaccustomed to the nude in life or art. Above her, Cain slays his brother as a symbolic prelude to history.

The reverse of the polyptych declines from the exalted type of the inner panels. In the middle row an angel at the left and Mary at the right, separated by a room, picture the Annunciation—the faces stereotyped, the hands remarkably fine, the draperies as lovely as any in Flemish painting. At the bottom is a Latin poem of four lines; some words have been worn out by the centuries; the rest reads: “Hubertus van Eyck, great and skilled beyond any other, began the heavy task, and Johannes, second in art... encouraged by the bequest of Jodocus Vyd. This verse on the sixth of May calls you to behold the finished work”; and in the final line certain letters add up in their numerical value to 1432, the year of completion. Vyd and his wife were the donors. How much of the picture was painted by Hubert, how much by Jan, is a problem happily insoluble, so that dissertations thereon may be written till all trace of the painting disappears.*

Perhaps there is in this epochal picture an undue profusion of figures and minutiae: every man, woman, angel, flower, branch, blossom, beast, stone, and gem is reproduced with heroic patience and fidelity—to the amusement of Michelangelo, who saw in Flemish realism a sacrifice of central significance to incidental and irrelevant detail.11 But nothing in contemporary Italy rivaled this painting in scope, conception, or effect; and in later pictorial art only the Sistine-Chapel ceiling of Michelangelo surpasses it, and the Vatican frescoes of Raphael, and probably Leonardo’s Last Supper before it began its long decay. Even in its own day all literate Europe talked of the Adoration. Alfonso the Magnanimous pleaded with Jan van Eyck to come to Naples and paint for him such men and women, with golden hair, as sang in this picture but were so rare in southern Italy.

Hubert van Eyck moves out of our ken after 1432,* but we can vaguely follow Jan through a prosperous career. Philip the Good made him varlet de chambre (then a position of much dignity and affluence), and sent him abroad with embassies as a jewel from the Burgundian crown. Some twenty-four extant paintings are ascribed to him, and nearly every one is a chefd’œuvre. Dresden has a Virgin and Child second only to the Adoration in the Van Eyck production; Berlin boasts The Man with the Pink—a dour face strangely incongruous with the fondled flower; Melbourne has the brilliantly colored “Ince Hall Madonna” hardly nine inches by six, yet valued at $250,000; Bruges treasures The Madonna with Canon van der Paele—the Virgin lovely from her flowing hair to the hem of her marvelously wrinkled gown, the Canon fat and bald and good-natured, one of the great portraits of the fifteenth century; London shows the newly weds Giovanni Arnolfini and his spouse in an interior sparkling with mirror and chandelier; the Frick Collection in New York has recently acquired, at unstated but enormous cost, a richly colored Virgin and Child with Sts. Barbara and Elizabeth; Washington has an Annunciation remarkable for its illusion of spatial depth, and for the splendor of Gabriel’s raiment, which steals the scene from Mary; and the Louvre owns The Madonna with Chancellor Rolin, with a fascinating landscape of winding river, crowded bridge, towered city, flowered gardens, and a range of hills rising to greet the sun. In all of these, besides their full-bodied colors, there is a resolve to picture the donors as they were and looked, to reveal on a face the life its owner had led, the thoughts and feelings that through the years had formed the features into a confession of character. In such portraits the medieval spirit of idealization is set aside, and a modern naturalism—perhaps reflecting middle-class secularism—is in full swing.

Many other painters reached renown in that fertile land and age: Petrus Christus, Jacques Daret, Robert Campin (“the Master of Flemalle”). We bow to them humbly and pass on to Campin’s pupil Roger de la Pasture. By the age of twenty-seven Roger had made such a name for himself in his native Tournai that it gave him twice the three measures or casks of wine that it had voted to Jan van Eyck. Nevertheless he accepted an invitation to be official painter for Brussels, and thenceforth gave his name the Flemish form Rogier van der Weyden. In 1450, aged fifty-one, he went to Rome for the jubilee, met Italian painters, and was feted as a world celebrity; possibly oil painting in Italy was advanced by his influence. When he died at Brussels in 1464 he was the most widely renowned artist in all Europe.

He is preserved in quantity. He too painted Philip the Good, Rolin—Philip’s chancellor for forty years—Charles the Bold, and many other celebrities. Beautiful beyond description is the Portrait of a Lady in the Washington National Gallery—embodied pugnacity and piety, modesty and pride. In portraiture Rogier was too romantic to match Jan van Eyck; but in his religious pictures he revealed a tenderness and refinement of sentiment, and an emotional intensity, missing in Jan’s masculine and matter-of-fact art; here, it may be, the French or Italian spirit spoke through the Flemish form,12 and the medieval mood revived.

Like the Italians, Rogier recorded the vital episodes in the moving story of Mary and her Son: Gabriel announcing to a startled girl that she is to be the mother of God; the Infant in the manger; the adoration of the Magi; St. Luke painting the Virgin as she nurses her Babe; the visit of Mary to Elizabeth; the mother happily contemplating her Child; the presentation in the temple; the Crucifixion; the descent from the cross; the Resurrection; the Last Judgment. In this final scene Rogier reached his apogee, in a complex polyptych probably designed, but not quite worthy, to rival The Adoration of the Lamb. It was painted for Rolin, and is now in the pretty hospital that the great chancellor founded in Beaune. In the central panel Christ sits in judgment, but more tempered with mercy than in Michelangelo; on either side angels robed in gleaming white carry the instruments of His passion and death; below them Michael the Archangel weighs in a scale the good and the bad; at the left Mary kneels in adoration and supplication; on one side the saved genuflect in grateful prayer, on the other the damned tumble in terror into hell. Almost as famous as this painting is a triptych in Antwerp illustrating the Seven Sacraments with symbolic scenes. And then, lest we think him quite lost in pious ecstasy, Rogier paints a bathing beauty, and two youths peeping at her through a chink in the wall, with that anomalous anatomical curiosity which satisfaction never satisfies.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!