RENAISSANCE VERSUS "LATE GOTHIC" PAINTING
As we narrow our focus from the Renaissance as a whole to the Renaissance in
the fine arts, we are faced with some questions that are still under debate.
When did it start? Did it, like Gothic art, originate in a specific center, or
in several places at the same time? Should we think of it as one coherent style,
or as an attitude that might be embodied in more than one style?
"Renaissance-consciousness," we know, was an Italian idea, and there can be no
doubt that Italy played the leading role in the development of Renaissance art,
at least until the early sixteenth century. This fact does not necessarily mean,
however, that the Renaissance was confined to the South.
So far as architecture and sculpture are concerned, modern scholarship agrees
with the traditional view, first expressed more than
ago, that the Renaissance began soon after 1400.
For painting, however, an even older tradition claims that the
new era began with Giotto, who, as Boccaccio wrote about
1350, "restored to light this art which had been buried
for many centuries." We cannot disregard such testimony. Yet if we accept it at
face value, we must assume that the Renaissance in painting dawned about
1300, a full generation before Petrarch.
Giotto himself certainly did not reject the past as an age of darkness. After
all, the two chief sources of his own style were the Byzantine tradition and the
influence of Northern Gothic. The artistic revolution he created from these
elements does not inherently place him in a new era, since revolutionary changes
had occurred in medieval art before. Nor is it fair to credit this revolution to
him alone, disregarding
and the other great Sienese masters. Petrarch was well aware of the achievements
of all these artistshe wrote
admiringly of both
he never claimed that they had restored to light what had been buried during the
centuries of darkness.
How, then, do we account for Boccaccio's statement about Giotto? We must
understand that Boccaccio
(1313-1375), an ardent disciple of
Petrarch, was chiefly concerned with advancing humanism in literature. In his
defense of the status of poetry, he found it useful to draw analogies with
painting. Had not the ancients themselves proclaimed that the two arts were
alike, in Horace's famous dictum that art must conform to the example of poetry
(id pictura poesis)? Boccaccio thus cast
in the role of "the Petrarch of painting," taking advantage of his already
legendary fame. Boccaccio's view of Giotto as a Renaissance artist is, then, a
bit of intellectual strategy, rather than a trustworthy reflection of Giotto's
own attitude. Nevertheless, what he has to say interests us because he was the
first to apply Petrarch's concept of "revival after the dark ages" to one of the
visual arts, even though he did so somewhat prematurely. His way of describing
Giotto's achievement is also noteworthy. It was he who claimed that Giotto
depicted every aspect of nature so truthfully that people often mistook his
paintings for reality itself. Here he implies that the revival of antiquity
means for painters an uncompromising realism. This, as we shall see, was to
become a persistent theme in Renaissance thought, justifying the imitation of
nature as part of the great movement "back to the classics" and tending to
minimize the possible conflict between these two aims. After all, Classical
Greek art was itself based on a synthesis of naturalism and ideal proportions.
Boccaccio, of course, was not in a position to know how many aspects of
and his contemporaries had failed to investigate. These, we recall, were further
explored by the painters of the International Style, albeit in somewhat
fashion. To advance beyond Gothic realism required a second revolution, which
began simultaneously and independently in Italy and in the Netherlands about
1420. We must think, therefore, of
two events linked by a common aimthe
conquest of the visible worldyet
sharply divided in almost every other respect. The Italian, or Southern,
revolution was the more systematic and, in the long run, the more fundamental,
since it included architecture and sculpture as well as painting. This movement,
which originated in Florence, is called the Early Renaissance. The same term is
not generally applied to the new style that emerged in Flanders. We have, in
fact, no satisfactory name to designate the Northern focus of the revolution.
Art historians are still of two minds about its scope and significance in
relation to the Renaissance as a whole.
We shall use the customary label, "Late Gothic," tor the sake of convenience,
with quotation marks to indicate its doubtful status. The term hardly does
justice to the special character of Northern fifteenth-century painting, but it
has some justification. It indicates, for instance, that the creators of the new
style, unlike their Italian contemporaries, did not reject the International
Style. Rather, they took it as their point of departure, so that the break with
the past was less abrupt in the North than in the South. "Late Gothic" also
reminds us that fifteenth-century architecture outside Italy remained firmly
rooted in the Gothic tradition.
choose to call the style of Northern painters of this time, their artistic
environment was clearly "Late Gothic".
How, one wonders, could they create a genuinely post-medieval
style in such a setting? Would it not be more reasonable to regard their work,
despite its great importance, as the final phase of Gothic painting? Italian
Renaissance art, after all, made very little impression north of the Alps during
the fifteenth century. If we treat Northern painting as the counterpart of the
Early Renaissance, it is because the great Flemish masters whose work we are
about to examine had an impact that went far beyond their own region. In Italy
they were admired as greatly as the leading Italian artists of the period. Their
intense realism had a conspicuous influence on Early Renaissance painting, for
the Italians, as we have already noted, associated the exact imitation of nature
in painting with a "return to the classics."
To Italian eyes, then, "Late Gothic" painting appeared definitely
post-medieval. Moreover, the situation of the Flemish painters had a close
parallel in the field of music. After about 1420,
the Netherlands produced a school of composers so revolutionary
as to dominate the development of music throughout Europe for the next hundred
years. How much the new style of these men was appreciated can be gathered from
a contemporary source which states that "nothing worth listening to had been
composed before their time." This remark, with its sweeping rejection of the
"musical dark ages," links the attitude of the Flemish musicians with Italian
"Renaissance-consciousness," except for the absence of any reference to the
revival of antiquity. We have no similar testimony concerning the new style of
the Flemish painters, but from what we know of the impact of their work, it
seems likely that people felt "nothing worth looking at had been painted before
THE MASTER OF FLEMALLE.
The first, and perhaps most decisive, phase of the pictorial revolution in
Flanders is represented by an artist whose name we do not know for certain. We
call him the Master of Flemalle (after the fragments of a large altar
from Flemalle), but he was probably identical with
the foremost painter of Tournai, whose career we can trace in documents from
1406 to his death in
1444. His finest work is the Merode
Altarpiece (fig. 541),
which he must have done soon after 1425.
Comparing it with its nearest relatives, the
Franco-Flemish pictures of the International Style (see figs.
535-38), we see that it falls
within the same tradition. Yet we also recognize in it a new pictorial
Here, for the first time, we have the sensation of actually looking
through the surface of the panel into a spatial world that has all the
essential qualities of everyday reality: unlimited depth, stability, continuity,
and completeness. The painters of the International Style, even at their most
adventurous, had never aimed at such consistency, and their commitment to
reality was far from absolute. The pictures they created have the enchanting
quality of fairy-tales where the scale and relationship of things can be shifted
at will, where fact and fancy mingle without conflict. The Master of Flemalle,
in contrast, has undertaken to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but
the truth. To be sure, he does not yet do it with total ease. His objects,
overly foreshortened, tend to jostle each other in space. But with almost
obsessive determination, he defines every last detail of every object to give it
maximum concreteness: its individual shape and size; its color, material,
surface textures; its degree of rigidity; and its way of responding to
illumination. The artist even distinguishes between the diffused light creating
soft shadows and delicate gradations of brightness, and the direct light
entering through the two round windows, which produces the twin shadows sharply
outlined in the upper part of the center panel and the twin reflections on the
brass vessel and candlestick.
541. MASTER OF FLEMALLE
Merode Altarpiece. ๑. 1425-30.
Oil on wood panels, center 64.3 x
62.9 cm; each wing 64.5 x 27.4
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Cloisters Collection,
The Merode Altarpiece transports us from the aristocratic world of the
International Style to the household of a Flemish burgher. The Master of
Flemalle was no court painter, but a townsman catering to the tastes of such
well-to-do fellow citizens as the two donors piously kneeling outside the
Virgin's chamber. This is the earliest Annunciation in panel painting that
occurs in a fully equipped domestic interior, as well as the first to honor
Joseph, the humble carpenter, by showing him at work next door.
This bold departure from tradition forced upon our artist a problem no one
had faced before: how to transfer supernatural events from symbolic settings to
an everyday environment, without making them look either trivial or incongruous.
He has met this challenge by the method known as "disguised symbolism," which
means that almost any detail within the picture, however casual, may carry a
symbolic message. Thus the flowers are associated with the Virgin: in the left
wing the roses denote her charity and the violets her humility, while in the
center panel the lilies symbolize her chastity. The shiny water basin and the
towel on its rack are not ordinary household equipment either but further
tributes to Mary as the "vessel most clean" and the "well of living waters."
Perhaps the most intriguing symbol of this sort is the candle next to the vase
of lilies. It was extinguished only moments before, as we can tell from the
glowing wick and the curl of smoke. But why had it been lit in broad daylight,
and what made the flame go out? Has the divine radiance of the Lord's presence
overcome the material light? Or did the flame of the candle itself represent the
divine light, now extinguished to show that God has become man, that in Christ
"the Word was made flesh"?
Clearly, the entire wealth of medieval symbolism survives in our picture, but
it is so completely immersed in the world of everyday appearances that we are
often left to doubt whether a given detail demands symbolic interpretation.
Observers long wondered, for instance, about the boxlike object on Joseph's
workbench (and a similar one on the ledge outside the open window), until one
scholar identified them as mousetraps intended to convey a specific theological
message. According to St. Augustine, God had to appear on earth in human form so
as to fool Satan: "The Cross of the Lord was the devil's mousetrap."
Since iconographic explanations of this sort require much scholarly
ingenuity, we tend to think of the Merode Altarpiece and similar pictures
as embodying a special kind of puzzle. And so they often do to the modern
beholder, although they can be enjoyed apart from knowing all their symbolic
content. But what about the patrons for whom these works were painted? Did they
immediately grasp the meaning of every detail? They would have had no difficulty
with such well-established symbols in our picture as the flowers, and they
probably understood the significance of the water basin. The message of the
extinguished candle and the mousetrap could not have been common knowledge even
among the well-educated, however. These two symbolsand
from their incongruity we can hardly doubt that they are symbolsmake
their earliest appearance in the Merode Altarpiece. They must be unusual,
too, for St. Joseph with the mousetrap has been found in only one other picture,
and the freshly extinguished candle does not recur elsewhere, so far as we know.
Apparently, the Master of Flemalle introduced them into the visual arts, yet
hardly any artists adopted them despite his great influence. If the candle and
the mousetrap were difficult to understand even in the fifteenth century, why
are they in our picture at all? Was the artist told to put them in by the
patron, who may have been exceptionally erudite? This would be possible if it
were the only case of its kind, but since there are countless instances of
equally subtle or obscure symbolism in "Late Gothic" painting, it seems more
likely that the initiative came from the artists, rather than from their
We have reason to believe, therefore, that the Master of Flemalle was either
a man of unusual learning himself, or had contact with the theologians and other
scholars who could supply him with the references that suggested the symbolic
meanings of things such as the extinguished candle and the mousetrap. In other
words, the artist did not simply continue the symbolic tradition of medieval art
within the framework of the new realistic style. He expanded and enriched it by
his own efforts. But why, we wonder, did he simultaneously pursue what are
customarily regarded as two opposite goals: realism and symbolism? To him,
apparently, the two were interdependent, rather than in conflict. We might say
that he needed a growing symbolic repertory because it encouraged him to explore
features of the visible world never represented before, such as a candle
immediately after it has been blown out or the interior of a carpenter's shop,
which provided the setting for the mousetraps. For him to paint everyday
reality, he had to "sanctify" it with a maximum of spiritual significance.
This deeply reverential attitude toward the physical universe as a mirror of
divine truths helps us to understand why in the Merode panels the smallest and
least conspicuous details are rendered with the same concentrated attention as
the sacred figures. Potentially, at least, everything is a symbol and thus
merits an equally exacting scrutiny. The disguised
symbolism of the Master of
Flemalle and his successors was not an external device grafted onto the new
realistic style, but ingrained in the creative process. Their Italian
contemporaries must have sensed this, for they praised both the miraculous
realism and the "piety" of the Flemish masters.
If we compare our illustration of the Merode Annunciation with those
of earlier panel paintings (figs. 524,
534, 535, and 539),
we see vividly that, all other differences aside, its
distinctive tonality makes the Master of Flemalle's picture stand out from the
rest. The jewellike brightness of the older works, their patterns of brilliant
hues and lavish use of gold, have given way to a color scheme far less
decorative but much more flexible and differentiated. The subdued tints of muted
greens, bluish- or brownish-grays show a new subtlety, and the scale of
intermediate shades is smoother and has a wider range. All these effects are
essential to the realistic style of the Master of Flemalle. They were made
possible by the use of oil, the medium he was among the first to exploit.
TEMPERA AND OIL.
The basic medium of medieval panel painting had been tempera, in which the
finely ground pigments were mixed ("tempered") with diluted egg yolk. It
produced a thin, tough, quick-drying coat admirably suited to the medieval taste
for high-keyed, flat color surfaces. However, in tempera the different tones on
the panel cannot be blended smoothly, and the continuous progression of values
necessary for three-dimensional effects was difficult to achieve. Furthermore,
the darks tended to look muddy and undifferentiated. For the Master of Flemalle
these were serious drawbacks, which he overcame by substituting oil for the
water-and-egg-yolk mixture. In a purely material sense, oil was not unfamiliar
to medieval artists, but it had been used only for special purposes, such as the
coating of stone surfaces or painting on metal. It was the Master of Flemalle
and his contemporaries who discovered its artistic possibilities. Oil, a
viscous, slow-drying medium, is capable of producing a wide variety of effects,
from thin, translucent films (called "glazes") to the thickest impasto (that is,
a thick layer of creamy, heavy-bodied paint). The hues can also yield a
continuous scale of tones, including rich, velvety dark shades previously
unknown. The medium offers a unique advantage over egg tempera, encaustic, and
fresco: oils give the artist the unprecedented ability to change his mind almost
at will. Without oil, the Flemish masters' conquest of visible reality would
have been much more limited. Thus, from the technical point of view, too, they
deserve to be called the "founders of modem painting," for oil has been the
basic medium ever since.
JAN VAN EYCH
HUBERT VAN EYCK.
JAN VAN EYCH.
The Crucifixion; The Last Judgment.
Tempera and oil on canvas, transferred from
panel; each panel 56.5
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York. Fletcher Fund,
Needless to say, the full range of effects made possible by oil
was not discovered all at once, nor by any one individual. The
Master of Flemalle contributed less than
Jan van Eyck, a somewhat younger and much more famous
artist who was long credited with the actual "invention" of oil
painting. We know a good deal about Jan's life and career. Born
1390, he worked in Holland from
1424, in Lille from
1429, and thereafter in
Bruges, where he died in 1441.
He was both a townsman and a court painter, highly
esteemed by Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, who occasionally sent
him on confidential diplomatic errands. After
1432, we can follow Jan's
career through a number of signed and dated pictures.
The inscription on the frame of the great Ghent Altarpiece
(see figs. 543-45)
tells us that
Jan completed it in that year, after it had been
begun by his older brother,
Hubert, who had died in
1426. fan's earlier development, however,
remains disputed. There are several "Eyckian" works, obviously older
than the Ghent Altarpiece, that may have been painted by
either of the two brothers. The most fascinating of these is a pair
of panels showing the Crucifixion and the Last
Judgment (fig. 542).
Scholars agree that their date is between
1425, whichever brother, Jan
or Hubert, was the author.
The style of these paintings has many qualities in common with
that of the Merode Altarpiece: the all-embracing devotion to
the visible world, the unlimited depth of space, and the angular
drapery folds, less graceful but far more realistic than the
unbroken loops of the International Style. At the same time, the
individual forms are not starkly tangible, like those characteristic
of the Master of Flemalle, and seem less isolated, less
"sculptural." The sweeping sense of space is the result not so much
of violent foreshortening as of subtle changes of light and color.
If we inspect the Crucifixion panel closely, we see a gradual
decrease in the intensity of local colors and in the contrast of
light and dark, from the foreground figures to the far-off city of
Jerusalem and the snow-capped peaks beyond. Everything tends toward
a uniform tint of light bluish-gray, so that the farthest mountain
range merges imperceptibly with the color of the sky.
This optical phenomenon is known as "atmospheric perspective."
were the first to utilize the effect fully and
systematically, although the
had already been aware of it (see fig.
536). The atmosphere
is never wholly transparent. Even on the clearest day, the air
between us and what we are looking at acts as a hazy screen that
interferes with our ability to see distant shapes clearly. As we
approach the limit of visibility, it swallows them altogether.
Atmospheric perspective is more fundamental to our perception of
deep space than linear perspective, which records the diminution in
the apparent size of objects as their distance from the observer
increases. It is effective not only in faraway vistas. In the
Crucifixion panel, even the foreground seems enveloped in a
delicate haze that softens contours, shadows, and colors. Thus the
entire scene has a continuity and harmony quite beyond the pictorial
range of the Master of Flemalle. How did the Van Eycks achieve this
effect? Their exact technical procedure is difficult to reconstruct,
but there can be no question that they used the oil medium with
extraordinary refinement. By alternating opaque and translucent
layers of paint, they were able to impart to their pictures a soft,
glowing radiance of tone that has never been equaled, probably
because it depends fully as much on their individual sensibilities
as it does on their skillful craftsmanship.
Seen as a whole, the Crucifixion seems singularly devoid of drama, as
if the scene had been gently becalmed by some magic spell. Only when we
concentrate on the details do we become aware of the violent emotions in the
faces of the crowd beneath the Cross, and the restrained but profoundly touching
grief of the Virgin Mary and her companions in the foreground. In the Last
judgment panel, this dual quality of the Eyckian style takes the form of two
extremes. Above the horizon, all is order, symmetry, and calm; below it, on
earth and in the subterranean realm of Satan, violent chaos prevails. The two
states thus correspond to Heaven and Hell, contemplative bliss as against
physical and emotional turbulence. The lower half, clearly, was the greater
challenge to the artist's imaginative powers. The dead rising from their graves
with frantic gestures of fear and hope, the damned being torn apart by devilish
monsters more frightful than any we have seen before (compare fig.
426), all have the awesome reality of a nightmare,
but a nightmare "observed" with the same infinite care as the natural world of
the Crucifixion panel.
543-45), the greatest monument of early Flemish
painting, presents problems so complex that our discussion must be limited to
bare essentials. We have already mentioned the inscription informing us that the
work, begun by Hubert, was completed by Jan in 1432.
Since Hubert died in 1426,
the altarpiece was presumably made in the seven-year span
between 1425 and
1432. We may therefore expect it to
introduce to us the next phase of the new style we have discussed so far. Its
basic arrangement is a triptycha
central body with two hinged wingsthe
standard format of altarpieces. In addition, each of the three units consists of
four separate panels. And since the wings are also painted on both sides, the
altarpiece has a total of 20
components of assorted shapes and sizes. The ensemble makes what has rightly
been called a "super-altar," overwhelming but far from harmonious, which could
not have been planned this way from the start. Apparently Jan took over a number
of panels left unfinished by Hubert, completed them, added some of his own, and
assembled them at the behest of the wealthy donor whose portrait we see on one
of the outer panels of the altar.
The Ghent Altarpiece (figs.
VAN EYCH. Ghent Altarpiece
(open). Completed 1432. Oil on
panel, 3.4 x
Church of St. Bavo, Ghent
To reconstruct this train of events, and to determine each brother's share,
is an interesting but difficult game. Suffice it to say that Hubert remains a
somewhat shadowy figure. His style, overlaid with retouches by fan, can probably
be found in the four central panels inside, although they did not belong
together originally. The upper three, whose huge figures in the final
arrangement crush the multitude of small ones below, were intended, it seems, to
form a self-contained triptych: the Lord between the Virgin Mary and St. John
the Baptist. The lower panel and the four flanking it probably formed a separate
altar-piece, the Adoration of the Lamb, symbolizing Christ's sacrificial death.
The two panels with music-making angels may have been planned by Hubert as a
pair of organ shutters.
If this hypothesis is correct, the two tall, narrow panels showing Adam and
Eve (fig. 544) are
the only ones on the interior added by Jan to Hubert's stock. They certainly are
the most daring of all: these, the earliest monumental nudes of Northern panel
painting (hardly less than lifesize), are magnificently observed and caressed by
the most delicate play of light and shade. Their quiet dignity and prominent
place in the altar suggest that they should remind us not so much of Original
Sin as of our creation in God's own image. Actual evil, by contrast, is
represented in the small, violently expressive scenes above, which show the
story of Cain and Abel. Even more extraordinary is the fact that the Adam
and Eve were designed specifically lor their present positions in the
ensemble. Jan van Eyck has established a new, direct relationship between
picture space and real space by depicting the two figures as they would really
appear to the spectator, whose eye level is below the bottom of the panels.
The outer surfaces of the two wings (fig.
545) were evidently planned by Jan as one coherent
unit. Here, as we would normally expect, the largest figures are not above, but
in the lower tier. The two St. Johns (painted in grays to simulate sculpture,
like the scenes of Cain and Abel), the donor, and his wife, each in a separate
niche, are the immediate kin of the Adam and Eve panels. The upper
tier has two pairs of panels of different width. The artist has made a virtue of
this awkward necessity by combining all four into one interior. Such an effect,
we recall, had first been created by
almost a century earlier (compare fig. 525).
Not content with perspective devices alone, Jan heightens
the illusion by painting the shadows cast by the frames of the panels on the
floor of the Virgin's chamber. Interestingly enough, this Annunciation
resembles, in its homely detail, the Merode Altarpiece, thus providing an
important link between the two great pioneers of Flemish realism.
VAN EYCH. Adam and Eve,
details of Ghent Altarpiece, left and right wings
VAN EYCH. Ghent Altarpiece (closed)
Donors' portraits of splendid individuality occupy conspicuous positions in
both the Merode and the Ghent altar-pieces. A renewed interest in realistic
portraiture had developed in the mid-fourteenth century, but until about
1420 its best achievements were in
sculpture (see fig. 498).
Painters usually confined themselves to silhouettelike profile
views, such as the portrait of the duke of Berry in figure
538. Not until the Master of
Flemalle, the first artist since antiquity to have real command of a close-up
view of the human face from a three-quarter view, did the portrait play a major
role in Northern painting.
In addition to donors' portraits, we now begin to encounter a growing number
of small, independent likenesses whose intimacy suggests that they were
treasured keepsakes, pictorial substitutes for the real presence of the sitter.
One of the most compelling is Jan van Eyck's Man in a Red Turban of
546), which may well be a
self-portrait. (The slight strain about the eyes seems to come from gazing into
a mirror.) The sitter is bathed in the same gentle, clear light as Adam and Eve
on the Ghent Altarpiece. Every detail of shape and texture has been
recorded with almost microscopic precision. Jan does not suppress the sitter's
personality, yet this face, like all of Jan's portraits, remains a psychological
puzzle. It might be described as "even-tempered" in the most exact sense of the
term: its character traits are balanced against each other so perfectly that
none can assert itself at the expense of the rest. As Jan was fully capable of
expressing emotionwe need only
recall the faces of the crowd in the Crucifixion, or the scenes of Cain
and Abel in the Ghent Altarpiecethe
stoic calm of his portraits surely reflects his conscious ideal of human
character rather than indifference or lack of insight.
The Flemish cities of Tournai, Ghent, and Bruges, where the new style of
painting flourished, rivaled those of Italy as centers of international banking
and trade. Their foreign residents included many Italian businessmen.
Jan van Eyck probably painted his remarkable portrait in
figure 547 to celebrate
the alliance of two of these families that were active in Bruges and Paris. It
represents the betrothal of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami in the main
room of the bride's house. The young couple touches hands in espousal as he
raises his right hand in solemn oath. They seem to be quite alone, but in the
mirror conspicuously placed behind them is the reflection of two other people
who have entered the room (fig. 548).
One of them is presumably the bride's father, who by
tradition gives her to the groom. The other must be the artist, since the words
above the mirror, in florid lettering, tell us that "Johannes de eyck fuit hie"
van Eyck was here) in the year 1434.
JAN VAN EYCH.
Man in a Red Turban (Self-Portrait?).
1433. Oil on panel, 26
x 19 cm. The National Gallery.
VAN EYCH. The
Arnolfini Portrait. 1434.
Oil on panel, 83.7x57 cm. The
National Gallery, London.
VAN EYCH. The
Arnolfini Portrait (detail)
Jan's role, then, is that of a witness to the event, which also entailed a
legal and financial contract between the two families. The picture claims to
show exactly what he saw. Given its secular nature, we may wonder whether the
picture is filled with the same sort of disguised symbolism as the Me'rode
Altarpiece, or whether the pervasive realism serves simply as an accurate
record of the domestic setting. The elaborate bed was the main piece of
furniture in the well-appointed living room of the day. May it not also contain
a discreet allusion to the physical consummation that validated marriage? Has
the couple taken off their shoes merely as a matter of custom, or to remind us
that they are standing on "holy ground"?
By the same token, is the little dog no more than a beloved pet
or an emblem of fidelity? The other furnishings in the room pose similar
problems of interpretation. What is the role of the single candle in the
chandelier, burning in broad daylight?
And is the convex mirror, whose frame is decorated with scenes
from the Passion, not a Vanitas symbol?
Clearly Jan was so intrigued by its unusual visual effects that
he incorporated it into two other paintings as well.
DER WEYDEN.(1399/1400-1464), the third great
master of early Flemish painting, set himself a different though equally
important task: to recapture the emotional drama and the pathos of the Gothic
past within the framework of the new style created by his predecessors. We see
this greater expressive immediacy in his early masterpiece, Descent from the
Cross (fig. 549),
which dates from about 1435
when the artist was in his mid-thirties. Here the modeling is
sculpturally precise, with brittle, angular drapery folds recalling those of the
Master of Flemalle. The soft half-shadows and rich, glowing colors show his
knowledge of Jan van Eyck. Yet Rogier is far more than a follower of the two
older artists. Whatever he owes to them (and it is obviously a great deal) he
uses for ends that are not theirs but his. The external events (in this case,
the lowering of Christ's body from the Cross) concern him less than the world of
human feeling. This Descent, judged for its expressive content, could
well be called a Lamentation.
In the work of
Jan van Eyck, the exploration of the reality made visible by
light and color reached a level that was not to be surpassed for another two
Rogier van der Weyden
The artistic ancestry of these grief-stricken gestures and faces is in
sculpture rather than painting. It descends from the Strasbourg Death of the
Virgin (fig. 488)
and the Naumburg Crucifixion (fig.
494) to the Bonn Pieta (fig.
497) and Sluter's
Moses Well (fig. 499).
It therefore seems uniquely fitting that
Rogier van der Weyden
should have staged his scene in a shallow architectural niche or shrine, as if
his figures were colored statues, and not against a landscape background. This
bold device gave him a double advantage in heightening the effect of the tragic
event. It focused the viewer's entire attention on the foreground, and allowed
him to mold the figures into a coherent, formal group. No wonder that Rogier's
art, which has been well described as "at once physically barer and spiritually
richer than Jan van Eyck's," set an example for countless other artists. When he
died in 1464, after
30 years as the foremost painter of
Brussels, his influence was supreme in European painting north of the Alps. Its
impact continued to be felt almost everywhere outside Italy until the end of the
century, such was the authority of his style.
What is true of Rogier's religious works applies equally well to his
portraits. The likeness of Francesco d'Este (fig.
550), an Italian nobleman resident at the
Burgundian court, may strike us as less lifelike than Jan van Eyck's. Modeling
is reduced to a minimum, and much descriptive detail has been simplified or
omitted altogether. The gracefully elongated forms render an aristocratic ideal
rather than the sitter's individual appearance. Yet this face, compared with
that of the Man in a Red Turban (fig.
546), conveys a more vivid sense of character.
Instead of striving for the psychologically "neutral" calm of Jan's portraits,
Rogier van der Weyden
interprets the human personality by suppressing some traits and emphasizing
others through such features as the set of the eyes and mouth. As a result, he
tells us more about the inner life of his sitters and less about their outward
DER WEYDEN. Descent from the
Cross, ๑ 1435. Oil on panel,
2.2 x 2.6 m. Museo del Prado, Madrid
DER WEYDEN. Francesco J'Este.
๑ 1455. Tempera and oil
on panel, 29.8 x
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
an unhappy genius whose tragic end suggests an unstable
personality especially interesting to us today. After a spectacular rise to fame
in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Bruges, he decided in
1475, when he was nearly 35
years of age, to enter a monastery as a lay brother.
He continued to paint for some time, but increasing fits of
depression drove him to the verge of suicide, and four years later he was dead.
Among the artists who followed
Rogier van der Weyden,
few succeeded in escaping from the great master's shadow. The most dynamic of
der Goes (c.
Van der Goes'
most ambitious work, the huge altarpiece commissioned by Tommaso Portinari in
1475, is an awesome achievement (fig.
551). While we need not
search here for hints of Hugo's future mental illness, it nonetheless evokes a
nervous and restless personality. There is a tension between the artist's
devotion to the natural world and his concern with the supernatural. Hugo has
rendered a wonderfully spacious and atmospheric landscape setting, with a wealth
of precise detail. Yet the disparity in the size of the figures seems to
contradict this realism. In the wings, the kneeling members of the Portinari
family are dwarfed by their patron saints, whose gigantic size characterizes
them as being of a higher order. The latter figures arc not meant to be "larger
than life," however, for they share the same huge scale with Joseph, the Virgin
Mary, and the shepherds of the Nativity in the center panel, whose height is
normal in relation to the architecture and to the ox and ass. The angels are
drawn to the same scale as the donors, and thus appear abnormally small.
DER GOES. The Portinari
Altarpiece (open), ๑. 1476.
Tempera and oil on panel, center 2.5 x 3.1 m, wings each 2.5 x 1.4 m. Galleria
degli Uffizi, Florence
This variation of scale, although its symbolic and expressive purpose is
clear, stands outside the logic of everyday experience affirmed in the
environment the artist has provided for his figures. There is another striking
contrast between the frantic excitement of the shepherds and the ritual
solemnity of all the other figures. These field hands, gazing in breathless
wonder at the newborn Child, react to the dramatic miracle of the Nativity with
a wide-eyed directness never attempted before. They aroused particular
admiration in the Italian painters who saw the work after it arrived in Florence
GEERTGEN TOT SINT JANS.
During the last
quarter of the fifteenth century there were no painters in Flanders
der Goes, and the most original artists
appeared farther north, in Holland. To one of these,
Geertgen tot Sint Jans
of Haarlem, who died about 1495,
we owe the enchanting Nativity
reproduced in figure 552,
a picture as daring in its quiet way as the center
panel of the Portinari Altarpiece.
The idea of a nocturnal Nativity, illuminated mainly by radiance
from the Christ Child, goes back to the International Style (see
applying the pictorial discoveries of
Jan van Eyck, gives new, intense reality to the
theme. The magic effect of his little panel is greatly enhanced by
the smooth, simplified shapes that record the play of light with
striking clarity. The heads of the angels, the Infant, and the
Virgin are all as round as objects turned on a lathe, while the
manger is a rectangular trough.
GEERTGEN TOT SINT JANS.
Oil on panel,
The National Gallery, London.
work, full of weird and seemingly irrational imagery, has proved difficult to
If Geertgen's uncluttered, "abstract" forms are especially attractive to us
today, another Dutch artist,
appeals to our interest in the world of dreams. Little is known about Bosch
except that he spent his life in the provincial town of s Hertogenbosch and that
he died, an old man, in
We can readily see why when we study the triptych known as The Garden
of Delights (fig. 553),
the richest and most puzzling of Bosch's pictures. Of the three
panels, only the left one has a clearly recognizable subject: the Garden of
Eden, where the Lord introduces Adam to the newly created Eve. The landscape,
almost Eyckian in its airy vastness, is filled with animals, among them such
exotic creatures as an elephant and a giraffe, as well as hybrid monsters of odd
and sinister kinds. Behind them, the distant rock formations are equally
strange. The right wing, a nightmarish scene of burning ruins and fantastic
instruments of torture, surely represents Hell. But what of the center panel, a
detail of which is seen in figure 554?
Here is a landscape much like that of the Garden of Eden, populated with
countless nude men and women engaged in a variety of peculiar activities. In the
center, they parade around a circular basin on the backs of all sorts of beasts.
Many frolic in pools of water. Most of them are closely linked with enormous
birds, fruit, flowers, or marine animals. Only a few are openly engaged in
lovemaking, but there can be no doubt that the delights in this "garden" are
those of carnal desire, however oddly disguised. The birds, fruit, and the like
are symbols or metaphors which
uses to depict life on earth as an unending repetition of the Original Sin of
Adam and Eve, which dooms us to be prisoners of our appetites. Nowhere does he
even hint at the possibility of salvation. Corruption, on the animal level at
least, had already asserted itself in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, and we
are all destined for Hell, the Garden of Satan, with its grisly and refined
instruments of torture.
We now know that much of the imagery in The Garden of Delights derives
from alchemy treatises, which
uses to convey a profoundly pessimistic attitude about humanity. We nevertheless
sense a fundamental ambiguity in the central panel. There is an innocence, even
a haunting poetic beauty, in this panorama of human sinfulness. Consciously,
Bosch was a stern moralist who intended his pictures to be visual sermons, every
detail packed with didactic meaning. Unconsciously, however, he must have been
so enraptured by the sensuous appeal of the world of the flesh that the images
he coined in such abundance tend to celebrate what they are meant to condemn.
That, surely, is the reason why The Garden of Delights still evokes so
strong a response today, even though we no longer understand every word of the
The Garden of Delights.
1510-15. Oil on panel, center
195 cm, wings, each 219.7
x 96.6 cm.
Museo del Prado, Madrid
The Garden of Delights. Detail of center panel
THE GRAPHIC ARTS
At this point we must take note of another important event north of the Alps:
the development of printing, for pictures as well as books. The earliest printed
books in the modern sense were produced in the Rhineland soon after
(It is not certain whether Johann
Gutenberg deserves the priority long claimed for him.) The new technique quickly
spread all over Europe and developed into an industry that had a profound effect
on Western civilization, ushering in the era of general literacy.
Printed pictures had hardly less importance, for without them the printed
book could not have replaced the work of the medieval scribe and illuminator so
quickly and completely. The pictorial and the literary aspects of printing were,
indeed, closely linked from the start. But where is the start? When, and by
whom, was printing invented? The beginnings of the story
which will be told here in barest outlinelie
in the ancient Near East 5,000
years ago. Mechanically speaking, the Sumerians were the earliest "printers,'
for their relief impressions on clay from stone seals were carved with both
pictures and inscriptions. From Mesopotamia the use of seals spread to India and
eventually to China. The Chinese applied ink to their seals in order to impress
them on wood or silk, and, in the second century A.D., they invented paper. By
the ninth century, they were printing pictures and books on paper from wooden
blocks carved in relief, and 200
years later they developed movable type. Some of the products of Chinese
printing surely reached the medieval Westthrough
the Arabs, the Mongols, or travelers such as Marco Poloalthough
we lack direct evidence.
The technique of manufacturing paper, too, came to Europe from the East, and
Chinese silk and porcelain were imported in small quantities from the fourteenth
Paper and printing from wood blocks were both known in the West during the
later Middle Ages. However, paper gained ground very slowly as a cheap
alternative to parchment, while printing was used only for ornamental patterns
on cloth. All the more astonishing is the development, beginning about
1400, of a printing technology that
within the century surpassed that of the Far East and proved of far wider
cultural importance. After 1500,
in fact, no basic changes were made in this field until the Industrial
The idea of printing pictorial designs from wood blocks onto paper seems to
have originated in Northern Europe at the very end of the fourteenth century.
Many of the oldest surviving examples of such prints, called woodcuts, are
German, others are Flemish, and some may be French; but all show the familiar
qualities of the International Style. The designs were probably furnished by
painters or sculptors. The actual carving of the wood blocks, however, was done
by specially trained artisans, who also produced wood blocks for textile prints.
As a result, early woodcuts, such as the St. Dorothy in figure
have a flat, ornamental pattern. Forms are defined by
simple, heavy lines, and there is little concern for three-dimensional effects,
as indicated by the absence of hatching or shading. Since the outlined shapes
were meant to be filled in with color, these prints often recall stained glass
(compare fig. 510)
more than the miniatures they
Despite their aesthetic appeal to modern eyes, we should remember that
fifteenth-century woodcuts were popular art, on a level that did not attract
artists of great ability until shortly before
single wood block yielded thousands of copies, to be sold for a few pennies
apiece, bringing the individual ownership of pictures within everyone's reach
for the first time in history. What people did with these prints is illustrated
in figure 563, a
detail from a Flemish Annunciation panel of about
1435, where a tattered woodcut of St. Christopher is
pinned up above the mantel. Perhaps it is a hint at the Virgin's journey to
Bethlehem (St. Christopher was the patron saint of travelers), but this
charmingly incongruous feature must also be understood as a disguised symbol of
her humility, for only the poor would have such an object on their walls.
562. St. Dorothy,
๑. 1420. Woodcut,
27 x 19
cm. Staadiche Graphische Sammlung, Munich
563. Woodcut of
St. Christopher, detail from an Annunciation by JACQUES DARET
(?). ๑ 1435.
Musecs Rovaux d'Art
et d'Histoire, Brussels
The St. Christopher woodcut has two lines of letteringa
short prayer, presumablyat the
bottom. Inscriptions of this kind are often found among early woodcuts, the
letters having been either added by hand or printed from the same block as the
picture. Such woodcuts combining image and text were sometimes assembled into
popular picture books, called block books.
But to carve lines of text backward in relief on a wooden block was a
wearisome and particularly risky taska
single slip could ruin an entire page. It is little wonder, then, that printers
soon had the idea of putting each letter on its own small block. Wooden movable
type carved by hand worked well for letters of large size but not for small
ones. Moreover, it was too expensive to use for printing long texts such as the
1450, this problem had been solved
through the introduction of metal type cast from molds, and the stage was set
for book production as we know it today.
Whoever first thought of metal type probably had the aid of goldsmiths to
work out the technical production problems. This is all the more likely since
many goldsmiths had already entered the field of printmaking as engravers. The
technique of embellishing metal surfaces with engraved pictures was developed in
classical antiquity (see fig.
and continued to be practiced throughout the Middle Ages (see
where the engraved lines are filled in with
enamel). Thus no new skill was required to engrave a plate that was to serve as
the "matrix" for a paper print.
The idea of making an engraved print apparently came from the desire for an
alternative, more refined and flexible, to woodcuts. In a woodcut, lines are
ridges left by gouging out the block; hence, the thinner they are, the more
difficult to carve. In an engraving, lines are V-shaped grooves incised with a
tool (called a burin) into a metal plate, usually copper, which is relatively
soft and easy to work, so that they are much more refined and flexible. The
subsequent printing is done by rubbing ink into the grooves, wiping off the
surface of the plate, covering it with a damp sheet of paper, and putting it
through the press.
Engravings appealed from the first to a smaller and more sophisticated
public. The oldest examples we know, dating from about
already show the influence of the great Flemish painters. Their forms are
systematically modeled with fine hatched lines and often convincingly
foreshortened. Nor do engravings share the anonymity of early woodcuts.
Individual hands can be distinguished almost from the beginning, dates and
initials appear shortly, and most of the important engravers of the last third
of the fifteenth century are known to us by name. Even though the early
engravers were usually goldsmiths by training, their prints are so closely
linked to local painting styles that we may determine their geographic origin
far more easily than for woodcuts. Especially in the Upper Rhine region, we can
trace a continuous tradition of fine engravers from the time of Conrad Witz to
the end of the century.
1430-1491), the first
printmaker whom we also know as a painter, and the first to gain international
fame. Schongauer might be called the Rogier van der Weyden of engraving. After
learning the goldsmith's craft in his father's shop, he must have spent
considerable time in Flanders, for he shows a thorough knowledge of Rogier's
art. His prints are filled with Rogierian motifs and expressive devices and
reveal a deep temperamental affinity to the great Fleming. Yet Schongauer had
his own impressive powers of invention. His finest engravings have a complexity
of design, spatial depth, and richness of texture that make them fully
equivalent to panel paintings. In fact, lesser artists often found inspiration
in them for large-scale pictures.
The most accomplished of these is
The Temptation of St. Anthony (fig.
564), one of
most famous works, masterfully combines savage expressiveness and formal
precision, violent movement and ornamental stability. The longer we look at it,
the more we marvel at its range of tonal values, the rhythmic beauty of the
engraved line, and the artist's ability to render every conceivable surfacespiky,
scaly, leathery, furryby varying
the burin's attack upon the plate. He was not to be surpassed by any later
engraver in this respect.
The Temptation of St. Anthony.
๑. 1480-90. Engraving, 29.2
x 21.8 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
THE MASTER OF THE HOUSEBOOK.