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HUGO VAN DER VELDEN
The Donor's Image: Gerard Loyet and the Votive Portraits of Charles the Bold
Turnhout: Brepols, 2000. 388 pp.; 16 color ills., 133 b/w. [euro]85.00
Rethinking the Renaissance: Burgundian Arts across Europe
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 398 pp.; 25 color ills., 86 b/w, [pounds sterling]60.00
Leben mit Kunst--Wirken durch Kunst: Sammelwesen und Hofkunst unter Margarete von Osterreich, Regentin der Niederlande
Turnhout: Brepols, 2002. 527 pp.; 9 color ills., 143 b/w. [euro]109.00
Painting stands central in the canon of early Netherlandish art. Survey courses often extol the achievements of Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes, and Gerard David to the detriment of forms of art that once enjoyed greater esteem. The vicissitudes of history and taste have relegated media other than painting to the fringes of our perception. In the 1560s, the vast majority of Netherlandish sculpture and stained glass fell victim to the hammers of iconoclasts. Very few goldsmiths' works produced in the Low Countries in the 15th century have survived; because of their high material value they were among the first casualties in times of hardship, as they could be melted into currency to finance war or feed a population. Many tapestries, brocades, and embroideries were likewise burned to recover the gold and silver used in their production.
Modern encyclopedic museums, whether Leo von Klenze's New Hermitage (1839-51), Gottfried von Semper's Kunsthistorisches Museum (1871-91), or Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould's Metropolitan Museum of Art (begun in 1874), invariably display paintings on the bel etage, where they are shown to best advantage with natural light from above. Other media occupy less advantageously lit galleries on the ground floor. Because of their sensitivity to light, illuminated manuscripts are displayed only in temporary exhibitions and remain the preserve of specialized researchers in reading rooms. Metalwork, textiles, and glass are lumped together under such headings as decorative arts, arts mineurs, toegepaste kunst, and Kunstgewerbe, terms that imply subservience to something greater.
Since Giorgio Vasari, critics have hailed Italian painting as the highest form of art (the second book reviewed here, Marina Belozerskaya's, begins with a useful chronicle of the rise of painting in Western aesthetics and philosophy of the last five hundred years). Early Netherlandish painting found its defenders in the early 19th century in the likes of Friedrich Schlegel and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who declared the works of Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling superior to those of Italians, even Raphael, in their embodiment of Christian truth. The rhetoric of a connoisseur such as Gustav Waagen or an archivist such as James Weale contributed to a revivified appreciation of early Netherlandish painting. Although the hugely influential 1902 Bruges exhibition Les primitifs flamands et l'art ancien included sculpture, tapestries, metalwork, and illuminated manuscripts, its emphasis lay on easel painting. Two monumental publications since then established the hegemony of painting in the scholarship of 15th-century northern art: Max J. Friedlander's fourteen-volume Die altniederlandische Malerei (1924-37) and Erwin Panofsky's Early Netherlandish Painting of 1953. Panofsky's survey, the first in English, was of such weight that it defined the field well into the 1980s.
Several books in recent decades have attempted to provide more balanced overviews of northern European art. Of particular notice are two volumes by Jan Bialostocki, the earlier of which, Spatmittelalter und beginnende Neuzeit (1972), is part of Propylaen Kunstgeschichte. Covering a vast artistic and geographic territory, his posthumously published L'art du XVe siecle des Parler a Durer (1989) would be an invaluable introduction for undergraduate students were it available in English. While James Snyder's Northern Renaissance Art (1985) touches on sculpture and the graphic arts, it gives the lion's share of its attention to painting. Kunst der burgundischen Niederlande (1997), edited by Birgit Franke and Barbara Welzel, would also make an excellent textbook, as the individual chapters, written by specialists in each field, examine a wide range of topics, such as patronage, ephemeral "displays" (for example, tournaments, joyful entries), metalwork, illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, the art market, painting, sculpture, and printmaking.
At first glance, the three volumes reviewed here would appear to share little besides the fact that they do not focus on early Netherlandish painting. One is a monograph on a single piece of metalwork, the second argues for a complete reappraisal of the phenomenon known as the Renaissance, and the third gives an account of the most important art collection assembled in the Netherlands in the early 16th century. Each book addresses its own set of issues and merits a separate review. Read together, however, the three volumes enrich one's understanding of the hierarchy of media in the minds of 15th- and early-16th-century patrons. At the heart of this discussion is the increasing appreciation of the artistic value of an object above the intrinsic worth of its materials.
Hugo van der Velden's The Donor's Image forces us to reconsider several of our assumptions on art and its perception in the Netherlands of the 15th century. Its subject is a group, now in the Liege Cathedral treasury, of Saint George presenting Charles the Bold, who kneels and holds an elongated, hexagonal receptacle with a window through which relics are visible. Both men are in complete armor; the duke's helmet and gauntlets lie at his sides, while Saint George, a dragon coiled around his legs, removes his helmet with his right hand. The figures, cast in partly painted and partly enameled gold, stand on a base of …