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Early Netherlandish painting is the work of artists, sometimes known as the Flemish Primitives, active in the "Burgundian and "Habsburg Netherlands during the 15th- and 16th-century "Northern Renaissance; especially in the flourishing cities of "Bruges, "Ghent, "Mechelen, "Louvain, "Tournai and "Brussels, all in contemporary "Belgium. Their work follows the "International Gothic style and begins approximately with "Robert Campin and "Jan van Eyck in the early 1420s. It lasts at least until the death of "Gerard David in 1523,[1] although many scholars extend it to the start of the "Dutch Revolt in 1566 or 1568 ("Max J. Friedländer's acclaimed surveys run through "Pieter Bruegel the Elder). Early Netherlandish painting coincides with the Early and "High "Italian Renaissance but is seen as an independent artistic culture, separate from the "Renaissance humanism that characterised developments in Italy. Because these painters represent the culmination of the northern European "medieval artistic heritage and the incorporation of "Renaissance ideals, they are sometimes categorised as belonging to both the "Early Renaissance and Late Gothic.

The major Netherlandish painters include Campin, van Eyck, "Rogier van der Weyden, "Dieric Bouts, "Petrus Christus, "Hans Memling, "Hugo van der Goes and "Hieronymus Bosch. These artists made significant advances in natural representation and "illusionism, and their work typically features complex "iconography. Their subjects are usually religious scenes or small portraits, with narrative painting or mythological subjects being relatively rare. Landscape is often richly described but relegated as a background detail before the early 16th century. The painted works are generally oil on panel, either as single works or more complex portable or fixed altarpieces in the form of "diptychs, "triptychs or "polyptychs. The period is also noted for its sculpture, "tapestries, "illuminated manuscripts, "stained glass and carved "retables.

The first generations of artists were active during the height of Burgundian influence in Europe, when the "Low Countries became the political and economic centre of Northern Europe, noted for its crafts and luxury goods. Assisted by the workshop system, panels and a variety of crafts were sold to foreign princes or merchants through private engagement or market stalls. A majority were destroyed during waves of "iconoclasm in the 16th and 17th centuries; today only a few thousand examples survive. Early northern art in general was not well regarded from the early 17th to the mid-19th century, and the painters and their works were not well documented until the mid-19th century. Art historians spent almost another century determining attributions, studying iconography, and establishing bare outlines of even the major artists' lives. Attribution of some of the most significant works is still debated.

Scholarship of Early Netherlandish painting was one of the main activities of 19th and 20th-century art history, and was a major focus of two of the most important art historians of the 20th century: "Max J. Friedländer (From Van Eyck to Breugel and Early Netherlandish Painting) and "Erwin Panofsky ("Early Netherlandish Painting).


Terminology and scope[edit]

The term "Early Netherlandish art" applies broadly to painters active during the 15th and 16th centuries[1] in the northern European areas controlled by the "Dukes of Burgundy and later the "Habsburg dynasty. These artists became an early driving force behind the Northern Renaissance and the move away from the Gothic style. In this political and art-historical context, the north follows the Burgundian lands which straddled areas that encompass parts of modern France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.[2]

The "Ghent Altarpiece, completed in 1432 by Jan van Eyck. This polyptych and the "Turin-Milan Hours are generally seen as the first major works of the Early Netherlandish period.

The Netherlandish artists have been known by a variety of terms. "Late Gothic" is an early designation which emphasises continuity with the "art of the Middle Ages.[3] In the early 20th century, the artists were variously referred to in English as the ""Ghent-Bruges school" or the "Old Netherlandish school". "Flemish Primitives" is a traditional art-historical term borrowed from the French primitifs flamands[4] that became popular after the "famous exhibition in Bruges in 1902[5][A] and remains in use today, especially in Dutch and German.[3] In this context, "primitive" does not refer to a perceived lack of sophistication, but rather identifies the artists as originators of a new tradition in painting. "Erwin Panofsky preferred the term "ars nova ("new art"), which linked the movement with innovative composers of music such as "Guillaume Dufay and "Gilles Binchois, who were favoured by the Burgundian court over artists attached to the lavish French court.[6] When the "Burgundian dukes established centres of power in the Netherlands, they brought with them a more cosmopolitan outlook.[7] According to "Otto Pächt a simultaneous shift in art began sometime between 1406 and 1420 when a "revolution took place in painting"; a "new beauty" in art emerged, one that depicted the visible rather than the metaphysical world.[8]

In the 19th century the Early Netherlandish artists were classified by nationality, with "Jan van Eyck identified as German and van der Weyden (born Roger de la Pasture) as French.[9] Scholars were at times preoccupied as to whether the school's genesis was in France or Germany.[10] These arguments and distinctions dissipated after World War I, and following the leads of "Friedländer, Panofsky, and Pächt, English-language scholars now almost universally describe the period as "Early Netherlandish painting", although many art historians view the Flemish term as more correct.[9]

In the 14th century, as "Gothic art gave way to the "International Gothic era, a number of schools developed in northern Europe. Early Netherlandish art originated in French courtly art, and is especially tied to the tradition and conventions of "illuminated manuscripts. Modern art historians see the era as beginning with 14th-century manuscript illuminators. They were followed by panel painters such as "Melchior Broederlam and "Robert Campin, the latter generally considered the first Early Netherlandish master, under whom van der Weyden served his apprenticeship.[7] Illumination reached a peak in the region in the decades after 1400, mainly due to the patronage of Burgundian and "House of Valois-Anjou dukes such as "Philip the Bold, "Louis I of Anjou and "Jean, Duke of Berry. This patronage continued in the low countries with the Burgundian dukes, "Philip the Good and his son "Charles the Bold.[11] The demand for illuminated manuscripts declined towards the end of the century, perhaps because of the costly production process in comparison to panel painting. Yet illumination remained popular at the luxury end of the market, and "prints, both "engravings and "woodcuts, found a new mass market, especially those by artists such as "Martin Schongauer and "Albrecht Dürer.[12]

"Hieronymus Bosch, "The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1490–1510. "Museo del Prado, Madrid. Art historians are divided as to whether the central panel was intended as a moral warning or as a panorama of paradise lost

Following van Eyck's innovations, the first generation of Netherlandish painters emphasised light and shadow, elements usually absent from 14th-century illuminated manuscripts.[13] Biblical scenes were depicted with more naturalism, which made their content more accessible to viewers, while individual portraits became more evocative and alive.[14] "Johan Huizinga said that art of the era was meant to be fully integrated with daily routine, to "fill with beauty" the devotional life in a world closely tied to the liturgy and sacraments.[15] After about 1500 a number of factors turned against the pervasive Northern style, not least the rise of Italian art, whose commercial appeal began to rival Netherlandish art by 1510, and overtook it some ten years later. Two events symbolically and historically reflect this shift: the transporting of a marble "Madonna and Child by "Michelangelo to Bruges in 1506,[12] and the arrival of "Raphael's "tapestry cartoons to Brussels in 1517, which were widely seen while in the city.[16] Although the influence of Italian art was soon widespread across the north, it in turn had drawn on the 15th-century northern painters, with Michelangelo's Madonna based on a type developed by "Hans Memling.[12]

Netherlandish painting ends in the narrowest sense with the death of "Gerard David in 1523. A number of mid- and late-16th-century artists maintained many of the conventions, and they are frequently but not always associated with the school. The style of these painters is often dramatically at odds with that of the first generation of artists.[4] In the early 16th century, artists began to explore illusionistic depictions of three dimensions.[17] The painting of the early 16th century can be seen as leading directly from the artistic innovations and iconography of the previous century, with some painters, following the traditional and established formats and symbolism of the previous century, continuing to produce copies of previously painted works. Others came under the influence of "Renaissance humanism, turning towards secular narrative cycles, as biblical imagery was blended with mythological themes.[18] A full break from the mid-15th-century style and subject matter was not seen until the development of "Northern Mannerism around 1590. There was considerable overlap, and the early- to mid-16th-century innovations can be tied to the Mannerist style, including naturalistic secular portraiture, the depiction of ordinary (as opposed to courtly) life, and the development of elaborate landscapes and cityscapes that were more than background views.[19]


"Master of the Life of the Virgin, a late Gothic Annunciation, c. 1463–90. "Alte Pinakothek, Munich

The origins of the Early Netherlandish school lie in the miniature paintings of the late Gothic period.[20] This was first seen in manuscript illumination, which after 1380 conveyed new levels of realism, perspective and skill in rendering colour,[21] peaking with the "Limbourg brothers and the Netherlandish artist known as Hand G, to whom the most significant leaves of the "Turin-Milan Hours are usually attributed.[22] Although his identity has not been definitively established, Hand G, who contributed c. 1420, is thought to have been either Jan van Eyck or his brother "Hubert. According to "Georges Hulin de Loo, Hand G's contributions to the Turin-Milan Hours "constitute the most marvelous group of paintings that have ever decorated any book, and, for their period, the most astounding work known to the history of art".[23]

Jan van Eyck's use of oil as a medium was a significant development, allowing artists far greater manipulation of paint. The 16th-century art historian "Giorgio Vasari claimed van Eyck invented the use of oil paint; a claim that, while exaggerated,[7] indicates the extent to which van Eyck helped disseminate the technique. Van Eyck employed a new level of virtuosity, mainly from taking advantage of the fact that oil dries so slowly; this gave him more time and more scope for blending and mixing layers of different pigments,[24] and his technique was quickly adopted and refined by both Robert Campin and "Rogier van der Weyden. These three artists are considered the first rank and most influential of the early generation of Early Netherlandish painters. Their influence was felt across northern Europe, from "Bohemia and Poland in the east to Austria and "Swabia in the south.[25]

"Jan van Eyck, "Portrait of a Man in a Turban, 1433; possible self-portrait. "National Gallery, London

A number of artists traditionally associated with the movement had origins that were neither Dutch nor Flemish in the modern sense. Van der Weyden was born Roger de la Pasture in "Tournai.[26][27] The German Hans Memling and the Estonian "Michael Sittow both worked in the Netherlands in a fully Netherlandish style. "Simon Marmion is often regarded as an Early Netherlandish painter because he came from "Amiens, an area intermittently ruled by the Burgundian court between 1435 and 1471.[4] The Burgundian duchy was at its peak influence, and the innovations made by the Netherlandish painters were soon recognised across the continent.[28] By the time of van Eyck's death, his paintings were sought by wealthy patrons across Europe. Copies of his works were widely circulated, a fact that greatly contributed to the spread of the Netherlandish style to central and southern Europe.[29] Central European art was then under the dual influence of innovations from Italy and from the north. Often the exchange of ideas between the Low Countries and Italy led to patronage from nobility such as "Matthias Corvinus, "King of Hungary, who commissioned manuscripts from both traditions.[30]

The first generation were literate, well educated and mostly from middle-class backgrounds. Van Eyck and van der Weyden were both highly placed in the Burgundian court, with van Eyck in particular assuming roles for which an ability to read Latin was necessary; inscriptions found on his panels indicate that he had a good knowledge of both Latin and Greek.[31][B] A number of artists were financially successful and much sought-after in the Low Countries and by patrons across Europe.[32] Many artists, including David and Bouts, could afford to donate large works to the churches, monasteries and convents of their choosing. Van Eyck was a "valet de chambre at the Burgundian court and had easy access to Philip the Good.[32] Van der Weyden was a prudent investor in stocks and property; Bouts was commercially minded and married the heiress Catherine "Mettengelde" ("with the money").[33][34] "Vrancke van der Stockt invested in land.[31]

Rogier van der Weyden, "Portrait of a Lady, 1460. "National Gallery of Art, Washington. Van der Weyden moved portraiture away from idealisation and towards more naturalistic representation.[35]

The Early Netherlandish masters' influence reached artists such as "Stefan Lochner and the painter known as the "Master of the Life of the Virgin, both of whom, working in mid-15th-century "Cologne, drew inspiration from imported works by van der Weyden and Bouts.[36] New and distinctive painterly cultures sprang up; "Ulm, "Nuremberg, "Vienna and "Munich were the most important artistic centres in the "Holy Roman Empire at the start of the 16th century. There was a rise in demand for "printmaking (using woodcuts or copperplate "engraving) and other innovations borrowed from France and southern Italy.[25] Some 16th-century painters borrowed heavily from the previous century's techniques and styles. Even progressive artists such as "Jan Gossaert made copies, such as his reworking of van Eyck's "Madonna in the Church.[37] Gerard David linked the styles of "Bruges and "Antwerp, often travelling between the cities. He moved to Antwerp in 1505, when Quentin Matsys was the head of the local "painters' guild, and the two became friends.[38]

By the 16th century the iconographic innovations and painterly techniques developed by van Eyck had become standard throughout northern Europe. Albrecht Dürer emulated van Eyck's precision.[39] Painters enjoyed a new level of respect and status; patrons no longer simply commissioned works but courted the artists, sponsoring their travel and exposing them to new and wide-ranging influences. "Hieronymus Bosch, active in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, remains one of the most important and popular of the Netherlandish painters.[40] He was anomalous in that he largely forewent realistic depictions of nature, human existence and perspective, while his work is almost entirely free of Italian influences. His better-known works are instead characterised by fantastical elements that tend towards the hallucinatory, drawing to some extent from the vision of hell in van Eyck's "Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych. Bosch followed his own muse, tending instead towards moralism and pessimism. His paintings, especially the "triptychs, are among the most significant and accomplished of the late Netherlandish period[40][41]

"Pieter Bruegel the Elder, "The Hunters in the Snow, 1565. "Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. The most famous of Bruegel's several winter landscapes, the panel is indicative of how painting in the mid-16th century tended towards the secular and everyday life.

The "Reformation brought changes in outlook and artistic expression as secular and landscape imagery overtook biblical scenes. Sacred imagery was shown in a didactic and moralistic manner, with religious figures becoming marginalized and relegated to the background.[42] "Pieter Bruegel the Elder, one of the few who followed Bosch's style, is an important bridge between the Early Netherlandish artists and their successors. His work retains many 15th-century conventions, but his perspective and subjects are distinctly modern. Sweeping landscapes came to the fore in paintings that were provisionally religious or mythological, and his "genre scenes were complex, with overtones of religious skepticism and even hints of nationalism.[42][43]

Technique and material[edit]

Campin, van Eyck and van der Weyden established "naturalism as the dominant style in 15th-century northern European painting. These artists sought to show the world as it actually was,[44] and to depict people in a way that made them look more human, with a greater complexity of emotions than had been previously seen. This first generation of Early Netherlandish artists were interested in the accurate reproduction of objects (according to Panofsky they painted "gold that looked like gold"),[45] paying close attention to natural phenomena such as light, shadow and "reflection. They moved beyond the flat "perspective and outlined figuration of earlier painting in favour of three-dimensional pictorial spaces. The position of viewers and how they might relate to the scene became important for the first time; in the "Arnolfini Portrait, Van Eyck arranges the scene as if the viewer has just entered the room containing the two figures.[46] Advancements in technique allowed far richer, more luminous and closely detailed representations of people, landscapes, interiors and objects.[47]

"Dieric Bouts's "The Entombment, c. 1440–55 ("National Gallery, London), is an austere but affecting portrayal of sorrow and grief, and one of the few surviving 15th-century glue-size paintings.[48]

Although, the use of oil as a "binding agent can be traced to the 12th century, innovations in its handling and manipulation define the era. "Egg tempera was the dominant medium until the 1430s, and while it produces both bright and light colours, it dries quickly and is a difficult medium in which to achieve naturalistic textures or deep shadows. Oil allows smooth, translucent surfaces and can be applied in a range of thicknesses, from fine lines to thick broad strokes. It dries slowly and is easily manipulated while still wet. These characteristics allowed more time to add subtle detail[49] and enable "wet-on-wet techniques. Smooth transitions of colour are possible because portions of the intermediary layers of paint can be wiped or removed as the paint dries. Oil enables differentiation among degrees of reflective light, from shadow to bright beams,[50] and minute depictions of light effects through the use of transparent glazes.[51] This new freedom in controlling light effects gave rise to more precise and realistic depictions of surface textures; van Eyck and van der Weyden typically show light falling on surfaces such as jewellery, wooden floors, textiles and household objects.[24][52]

The paintings were most often made on wood, but sometimes on the less expensive canvas.[C] The wood was usually oak, often imported from the Baltic region, with the preference for radially cut boards which are less likely to warp. Typically the sap was removed and the board well-seasoned before use.[53] Wood supports allow for "dendrochronological dating, and the particular use of Baltic oak gives clues as to the artist's location.[54] The panels generally show very high degrees of craftsmanship. "Lorne Campbell notes that most are "beautifully made and finished objects. It can be extremely difficult to find the joins".[55] Many paintings' frames were altered, repainted or gilded in the 18th and early 19th centuries when it was common practice to break apart hinged Netherlandish pieces so they could be sold as genre pieces. Many surviving panels are painted on both sides or with the reverse bearing family emblems, crests or ancillary outline sketches. In the case of single panels, the markings on the reverse are often wholly unrelated to the obverse and may be later additions, or as Campbell speculates, "done for the artist's amusement".[53] Painting each side of a panel was practical since it prevented the wood from warping.[56] Usually the frames of hinged works were constructed before the individual panels were worked on.[55]

"Glue binder was often used as an inexpensive alternative to oil. Many works using this medium were produced but few survive today because of the delicateness of the linen cloth and the solubility of the hide glue from which the binder was derived.[53] Well known and relatively well preserved – though substantially damaged – examples include Matsys' "Virgin and Child with Saints Barbara and Catherine (c. 1415–25)[57] and Bouts' "Entombment (c. 1440–55).[58] The paint was generally applied with brushes or sometimes with thin sticks or brush handles. The artists often softened the contours of shadows with their fingers, at times to blot or reduce the "glaze.[55]

Guilds and workshops[edit]

The most usual way in the 15th century for a patron to commission a piece was to visit a master's workshop. Only a certain number of masters could operate within any city's bounds; they were regulated by artisan "guilds to whom they had to be affiliated to be allowed to operate and receive commissions. Guilds protected and regulated painting, overseeing production, export trade and raw material supply; and they maintained discrete sets of rules for panel painters, cloth painters and book illuminators.[59] For example, the rules set higher citizenship requirements for miniaturists and prohibited them from using oils. Overall, panel painters enjoyed the highest level of protection, with cloth painters ranking below.[60]

Membership of a guild was highly restricted and access was difficult for newcomers. A master was expected to serve an apprenticeship in his region, and show proof of citizenship, which could be obtained through birth in the city or by purchase.[60] Apprenticeship lasted four to five years, ending with the production of a ""masterpiece" that proved his ability as a craftsman, and the payment of a substantial entrance fee. The system was protectionist at a local level through the nuances of the fee system. Although it sought to ensure a high quality of membership, it was a self-governing body that tended to favour wealthy applicants.[61] Guild connections sometimes appear in paintings, most famously in van der Weyden's "Descent from the Cross, in which Christ's body is given the t-shape of a "crossbow to reflect its commission for a chapel for the "Leuven guild of archers.[62]

Workshops typically consisted of a family home for the master and lodging for apprentices.[63] The masters usually built up inventories of pre-painted panels as well as patterns or outline designs for ready sale.[64] With the former, the master was responsible for the overall design of the painting, and typically painted the focal portions, such as the faces, hands and the embroidered parts of the figure's clothing. The more prosaic elements would be left to assistants; in many works it is possible to discern abrupt shifts in style, with the relatively weak "Deesis passage in van Eyck's Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych being a better-known example.[65] Often a master's workshop was occupied with both the reproduction of copies of proven commercially successful works, and the design of new compositions arising from commissions.[66] In this case, the master would usually produce the "underdrawing or overall composition to be painted by assistants. As a result, many surviving works that evidence first-rank compositions but uninspired execution are attributed to workshop members or followers.[67]


Jan van Eyck, "Annunciation, 1434–1436. Wing from a dismantled triptych. "National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. The architecture shows "Romanesque and "Gothic styles. Mary is overly large, symbolizing her heavenly status.[68]

By the 15th century the reach and influence of the Burgundian princes meant that the Low Countries' merchant and banker classes were in the ascendancy. The early to mid-century saw great rises in international trade and domestic wealth, leading to an enormous increase in the demand for art. Artists from the area attracted patronage from the "Baltic coast, the north German and Polish regions, the "Iberian Peninsula, Italy and the powerful families of England and Scotland.[69] At first, masters had acted as their own dealers, attending fairs where they could also buy frames, panels and pigments.[63] The mid-century saw the development of "art dealership as a profession; the activity became purely commercially driven, dominated by the mercantile class.[70]

Rogier van der Weyden, "Jean Wauquelin presenting his 'Chroniques de Hainaut' to Philip the Good, presentation miniature, 1447–1448. "Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels

Smaller works were not usually produced on commission. More often the masters anticipated the formats and images that would be most sought after and their designs were then developed by workshop members. Ready made paintings were sold at regularly held fairs,[71] or the buyers could visit workshops, which tended to be clustered in certain areas of the major cities. The masters were allowed to display in their front windows. This was the typical mode for the thousands of panels produced for the middle class – city officials, clergy, guild members, doctors and merchants.[72]

Less expensive cloth paintings ("tüchlein) were more common in middle-class households, and records show a strong interest in domestically owned religious panel paintings.[72] Members of the merchant class typically commissioned smaller devotional panels, containing specified subject matter. Alterations varied from having individualised panels added to a prefabricated pattern, to the inclusion of a donor portrait. The addition of coats-of-arms were often the only change – an addition seen in van der Weyden's "Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, which exists in several variations.[73]

Many of the Burgundian dukes could afford to be extravagant in their taste.[70] Philip the Good followed the example set earlier in France by his great-uncles including "John, Duke of Berry by becoming a strong patron of the arts and commissioning a large number of artworks.[74] The Burgundian court was seen as the arbiter of taste and their appreciation in turn drove demand for highly luxurious and expensive illuminated manuscripts, gold-edged tapestries and jewel-bordered cups. Their appetite for finery trickled down through their court and nobles to the people who for the most part commissioned local artists in Bruges and Ghent in the 1440s and 1450s. While Netherlandish panel paintings did not have intrinsic value as did for example objects in precious metals, they were perceived as precious objects and in the first rank of European art. A 1425 document written by Philip the Good explains that he hired a painter for the "excellent work that he does in his craft".[70] Jan van Eyck painted the "Annunciation while in Philip's employ, and Rogier van der Weyden became the duke's portrait painter in the 1440s.[74]

Jan van Eyck, "Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, c. 1435

Burgundian rule created a large class of courtiers and functionaries. Some gained enormous power and commissioned paintings to display their wealth and influence.[75] Civic leaders also commissioned works from major artists, such as Bouts' Justice for Emperor Otto III, van der Weyden's "The Justice of Trajan and Herkinbald and David's Justice of Cambyses.[76] Civic commissions were less common and were not as lucrative, but they brought notice to and increased a painter's reputation, as with Memling, whose "St John Altarpiece for Bruges' "Sint-Janshospitaal brought him additional civic commissions.[77]

Wealthy foreign patronage and the development of international trade afforded the established masters the chance to build up workshops with assistants.[63] Although first-rank painters such as "Petrus Christus and Hans Memling found patrons among the local nobility, they catered specifically to the large foreign population in Bruges.[60] Painters not only exported goods but also themselves; foreign princes and nobility, striving to emulate the opulence of the Burgundian court, hired painters away from Bruges.[78][D]


Rogier van der Weyden, "The Magdalen Reading, before 1438. "National Gallery, London. This fragment is unusually rich in iconographical detail, including the Magdalen's averted eyes, her attribute of ointment, and the concept of Christ as the word represented by the book in her hands.[79]

The paintings of the first generation of Netherlandish artists are often characterised by the use of symbolism and biblical references.[80] Van Eyck pioneered, and his innovations were taken up and developed by van der Weyden, Memling and Christus. Each employed rich and complex iconographical elements to create a heightened sense of contemporary beliefs and spiritual ideals.[81] Morally the works express a fearful outlook, combined with a respect for restraint and stoicism. The paintings above all emphasise the spiritual over the earthly. Because the cult of Mary was at an apex at the time, iconographic elements related to the "Life of Mary vastly predominate.[82]

Craig Harbison describes the blending of realism and symbolism as perhaps "the most important aspect of early Flemish art".[83] The first generation of Netherlandish painters were preoccupied with making religious symbols more realistic.[83] Van Eyck incorporated a wide variety of iconographic elements, often conveying what he saw as a co-existence of the spiritual and material worlds. The iconography was embedded in the work unobtrusively; typically the references comprised small but key background details.[80] The embedded symbols were meant to meld into the scenes and "was a deliberate strategy to create an experience of spiritual revelation".[84] Van Eyck's religious paintings in particular "always present the spectator with a transfigured view of visible reality".[85] To him the day-to-day is harmoniously steeped in symbolism, such that, according to Harbison, "descriptive data were rearranged ... so that they illustrated not earthly existence but what he considered supernatural truth."[85] This blend of the earthly and heavenly evidences van Eyck's belief that the "essential truth of Christian doctrine" can be found in "the marriage of secular and sacred worlds, of reality and symbol".[86] He depicts overly large Madonnas, whose unrealistic size shows the separation between the heavenly from earthly, but placed them in everyday settings such as churches, domestic chambers or seated with court officials.[86]

Yet the earthly churches are heavily decorated with heavenly symbols. A heavenly throne is clearly represented in some domestic chambers (for example in the "Lucca Madonna). More difficult to discern are the settings for paintings such as Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, where the location is a fusion of the earthly and celestial.[87] Van Eyck's iconography is often so densely and intricately layered that a work has to be viewed multiple times before even the most obvious meaning of an element is apparent. The symbols were often subtly woven into the paintings so that they only became apparent after close and repeated viewing,[80] while much of the iconography reflects the idea that, according to John Ward, there is a "promised passage from sin and death to salvation and rebirth".[88]

Other artists employed symbolism in a more prosaic manner, despite van Eyck's great influence on both his contemporaries and later artists. Campin showed a clear separation between spiritual and earthly realms; unlike van Eyck, he did not employ a programme of concealed symbolism. Campin's symbols do not alter the sense of the real; in his paintings a domestic scene is no more complicated than a one showing religious iconography, but one the viewer would recognise and understand.[89] Van der Weyden's symbolism was far more nuanced than Campin's but not as dense as van Eyck's. According to Harbison, van der Weyden incorporated his symbols so carefully, and in such an exquisite manner, that "Neither the mystical union that results in his work, nor his reality itself for that matter, seems capable of being rationally analyzed, explained or reconstructed."[90] His treatment of architectural details, "niches, colour and space is presented in such an inexplicable manner that "the particular objects or people we see before us have suddenly, jarringly, become symbols with religious truth".[90]

Anonymous, "The Cambrai Madonna, c 1340. "Cambrai Cathedral, France. This small c. 1340 Italo-"Byzantine replica was believed an original by "Saint Luke and therefore widely copied[91][92]
"Geertgen tot Sint Jans, "Man of Sorrows, c. 1485–95. "Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht. One of the finest examples of the ""Man of Sorrows" tradition, this complex panel has been described as an "unflinching, yet emotive depiction of physical suffering"[93]

Paintings and other precious objects served an important aid in the religious life of those who could afford them. Prayer and meditative contemplation were means to attain salvation, while the very wealthy could also build churches (or extend existing ones), or commission artworks or other devotional pieces as a means to guarantee salvation in the afterlife.[94] Vast numbers of Virgin and Child paintings were produced, and original designs were widely copied and exported. Many of the paintings were based on "Byzantine prototypes of the 12th and 13th century, of which the "Cambrai Madonna is probably the best known.[95] In this way the traditions of the earlier centuries were absorbed and re-developed as a distinctly rich and complex iconographical tradition.[94]

Marian devotion grew from the 13th century, mostly forming around the concepts of the "Immaculate Conception and her "Assumption into heaven. In a culture that venerated the possession of "relics as a means to bring the earthly closer to the divine, Mary left no bodily relics, thus assuming a special position between heaven and humanity.[96] By the early 15th century, Mary had grown in importance within the Christian doctrine to the extent that she was commonly seen as the most accessible intercessor with God. It was thought that the length each person would need to suffer in "limbo was proportional to their display of devotion while on earth.[97] The veneration of Mary reached a peak in the early 15th century, an era that saw an unending demand for works depicting her likeness. From the mid-15th century, Netherlandish portrayals of the life of Christ tended to be centred on the iconography of the "Man of Sorrows.[94]

Those who could afford to commissioned "donor portraits. Such a commission was usually executed as part of a triptych, or later as a more affordable diptych. Van der Weyden popularised the existing northern tradition of half-length "Marian portraits. These echoed the "miracle-working" Byzantine icons then popular in Italy. The format became extremely popular across the north, and his innovations are an important contributing factor to the emergence of the Marian diptych.[98]


Although the Netherlandish artists are primarily known for their panel paintings, their output includes a variety of formats, including illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, tapestries, carved "retables, "stained glass, brass objects and carved "tombs.[99] According to art historian "Susie Nash, by the early 16th century, the region led the field in almost every aspect of portable visual culture, "with specialist expertise and techniques of production at such a high level that no one else could compete with them".[99] The Burgundian court favoured tapestry and "metalwork, which are well recorded in surviving documentation, while demand for panel paintings is less evident[72] – they may have been less suited to itinerant courts. Wall hangings and books functioned as political propaganda and as a means to showcase wealth and power, whereas portraits were less favoured. According to Maryan Ainsworth, those that were commissioned functioned to highlight lines of succession, such as van der Weyden's portrait of Charles the Bold; or for betrothals as in the case of van Eyck's lost "Portrait of Isabella of Portugal.[100]

Religious paintings were commissioned for royal and ducal palaces, for churches, hospitals, and convents, and for wealthy clerics and private donors. The richer cities and towns commissioned works for their civic buildings.[72] Artists often worked in more than one medium; van Eyck and Petrus Christus are both thought to have contributed to manuscripts. Van der Weyden designed tapestries, though few survive.[101][102] The Netherlandish painters were responsible for many innovations, including the advancement of the diptych format, the conventions of "donor portraits, new conventions for Marian portraits, and, through works such as van Eyck's Madonna of Chancellor Rolin and van der Weyden's "Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin in the 1430s, laying the foundation for the development of "landscape painting as a separate genre.[103]

Illuminated manuscript[edit]

Master of Girart de Roussillon, c. 1450, Burgundian wedding (Philip the Good and Isabella of Portugal). "Austrian National Library, Vienna

Before the mid-15th century, illuminated books were considered a higher form of art than panel painting, and their ornate and luxurious qualities better reflected the wealth, status and taste of their owners.[104] Manuscripts were ideally suited as "diplomatic gifts or offerings to commemorate dynastic marriages or other major courtly occasions.[105] From the 12th century, specialist monastery-based workshops (in French libraires) produced "books of hours (collections of prayers to be said at "canonical hours), "psalters, prayer books and histories, as well as romance and poetry books. At the start of the 15th century, Gothic manuscripts from Paris dominated the northern European market. Their popularity was in part due to the production of more affordable, single leaf miniatures which could be inserted into unillustrated books of hours. These were at times offered in a serial manner designed to encourage patrons to "include as many pictures as they could afford", which clearly presented them as an item of fashion but also as form of "indulgence. The single leaves had other uses rather than inserts; they could be attached to walls as aids to private meditation and prayer,[106] as seen in Christus' 1450–60 panel Portrait of a Young Man, now in the "National Gallery, which shows a small leaf with text to the "Vera icon illustrated with the head of Christ.[107] The French artists were overtaken in importance from the mid-15th century by masters in Ghent, Bruges and "Utrecht. English production, once of the highest quality, had greatly declined and relatively few Italian manuscripts went north of the Alps. The French masters did not give up their position easily however, and even in 1463 were urging their guilds to impose sanctions on the Netherlandish artists.[106]

The "Limbourg brothers's ornate "Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry perhaps marks both the beginning and a highpoint of Netherlandish illumination. Later the "Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy explored the same mix of illusionism and realism.[22] The Limbourgs' career ended just as van Eyck's began – by 1416 all the brothers (none of whom had reached 30) and their patron Jean, Duke of Berry were dead, most likely from "plague.[22] Van Eyck is thought to have contributed several of the more acclaimed "miniatures of the Turin-Milan Hours as the anonymous artist known as Hand G.[108] A number of illustrations from the period show a strong stylistic resemblance to Gerard David, though it is unclear whether they are from his hands or those of followers.[109]

"Barthélemy d'Eyck's chivalrous and romantic leaf from his "Livre du cœur d'Amour épris", c. 1458–60

A number of factors led to the popularity of Netherlandish illuminators. Primary was the tradition and expertise that developed in the region in the centuries following the monastic reform of the 14th century, building on the growth in number and prominence of monasteries, abbeys and churches from the 12th century that had already produced significant numbers of "liturgical texts.[106] There was a strong political aspect; the form had many influential patrons such as Jean, Duke of Berry and Philip the Good, the latter of whom collected more than a thousand illuminated books before his death.[110] According to Thomas Kren, Philip's "library was an expression of the man as a Christian prince, and an embodiment of the state – his politics and authority, his learning and piety".[111] Because of his patronage the manuscript industry in the Lowlands grew so that it dominated Europe for several generations. The Burgundian book-collecting tradition passed to Philip's son and his wife, Charles the Bold and "Margaret of York; his granddaughter "Mary of Burgundy and her husband "Maximilian I; and to his son-in-law, "Edward IV, who was an avid collector of Flemish manuscripts. The libraries left by Philip and Edward IV formed the nucleus from which sprang the "Royal Library of Belgium and the "English Royal Library.[112]

Netherlandish illuminators had an important export market, designing many works specifically for the English market. Following a decline in domestic patronage after Charles the Bold died in 1477, the export market became more important. Illuminators responded to differences in taste by producing more lavish and extravagantly decorated works tailored for foreign elites, including Edward IV of England, "James IV of Scotland and "Eleanor of Viseu.[113]

Limbourg brothers, The Death of Christ, folio 153r, "Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

There was considerable overlap between panel painting and illumination; van Eyck, van der Weyden, Christus and other painters designed manuscript miniatures. In addition, miniaturists would borrow motifs and ideas from panel paintings; Campin's work was often used as a source in this way, for example in the "Hours of Raoul d'Ailly".[114] Commissions were often shared between several masters, with junior painters or specialists assisting, especially with details such as the border decorations, these last often done by women.[106] The masters rarely signed their work, making attribution difficult; the identities of some of the more significant illuminators are lost.[111][115]

Netherlandish artists found increasingly inventive ways to highlight and differentiate their work from manuscripts from surrounding countries; such techniques included designing elaborate page borders and devising ways to relate scale and space. They explored the interplay between the three essential components of a manuscript: border, miniature and text.[116] An example is the "Nassau book of hours (c. 1467–80) by the Vienna Master of Mary of Burgundy, in which the borders are decorated with large illusionistic flowers and insects. These elements achieved their effect by being broadly painted, as if scattered across the gilded surface of the miniatures. This technique was continued by, among others, the Flemish "Master of James IV of Scotland (possibly "Gerard Horenbout),[117] known for his innovative page layout. Using various illusionistic elements, he often blurred the line between the miniature and its border, frequently using both in his efforts to advance the narrative of his scenes.[22]

During the early 19th century, the collection of 15th- and 16th-century Netherlandish cut-out, as miniatures or parts for albums, became fashionable amongst connoisseurs such as "William Young Ottley, leading to the destruction of many manuscripts. Originals were highly sought after, a revival that helped the rediscovery of Netherlandish art in the later part of the century.[118]


"The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn", fragment from "The Hunt of the Unicorn, 1495–1505. "The Cloisters, New York

During the mid-15th century, "tapestry was one of the most expensive and prized artistic products in Europe. Commercial production proliferated across the Netherlands and northern France from the early 15th century, especially in the cities of "Arras, Bruges and "Tournai. The perceived technical ability of these artisans was such that, in 1517, "Pope Julius II sent "Raphael's "cartoons to Brussels to be woven into hangings.[119] Such woven wall hangings played a central political role as diplomatic gifts, especially in their larger format; Philip the Good gifted several to participants at the "Congress of Arras in 1435,[99] where the halls were draped from top to bottom and all around (tout autour) with tapestries showing scenes of the "Battle and Overthrow of People of Liege".[120] At Charles the Bold and Margaret of York's wedding the room "was hung above with draperies of wool, blue and white, and on the sides was tapestried with a rich tapestry woven with the history of Jason and the Golden Fleece". Rooms typically were hung from ceiling to floor with tapestries and some rooms named for a set of tapestries, such as a chamber Philip the Bold named for a set of white tapestries with scenes from "The Romance of the Rose.[120] For about two centuries during the Burgundian period, master weavers produced "innumerable series of hangings heavy with gold and silver thread, the like of which the world had never seen".[121]

The practical use of textiles results from their portability; tapestries provided easily assembled interior decorations suited to religious or civic ceremonies.[122] Their value is reflected in their positioning in contemporary inventories, in which they are typically found at the top of the record, then ranked in accordance with their material or colouring. White and gold were considered of the highest quality. "Charles V of France had 57 tapestries, of which 16 were white. "Jean de Berry owned 19, while "Mary of Burgundy, "Isabella of Valois, "Isabeau of Bavaria and Philip the Good all held substantial collections.[123]

Tapestry production began with design.[124] The designs, or "cartoons were typically executed on paper or parchment, put together by qualified painters, then sent to weavers, often across a great distance. Because cartoons could be re-used, craftsmen often worked on source material that was decades old. As both paper and parchment are highly perishable, few of the original cartoons survive.[125] Once a design was agreed upon its production might be farmed out among many weavers. Looms were active in all the major Flemish cities, in most of the towns and in many of the villages.[124]

Unknown Flemish weaver, Tapestry with Scenes from the Passion of Christ, c. 1470–90. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Looms were not controlled by the guilds. Dependent on a migrant workforce, their commercial activity was driven by entrepreneurs, who were usually painters. The entrepreneur would locate and commission patrons, hold a stock of cartoons and provide raw materials such as wool, silk, and sometimes gold and silver – which often had to be imported.[126] The entrepreneur was in direct contact with the patron, and they would often go through the nuances of the design at both the cartoon and final stages. This examination was often a difficult business and necessitated delicate management; in 1400 Isabeau of Bavaria rejected a completed set by "Colart de Laon[124] having earlier approved the designs, to de Laon's – and presumably his commissioner's – considerable embarrassment.[125]

Because tapestries were designed largely by painters, their formal conventions are closely aligned with the conventions of panel painting. This is especially true with the later generations of 16th-century painters who produced panoramas of heaven and hell. Harbison describes how the intricate, dense and overlaid detail of Bosch