Alfred Acres

title.none: Jacobs, Netherlandish Carved Altarpieces (Acres)

identifier.other: baj9928.9903.004 99.03.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alfred Acres, University of Oregon,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Jacobs, Lynn. Early Netherlandish Carved Altarpieces, 1380-1550: Medieval Tastes and Mass Marketing. New York: University of Cambridge Press, 1998. Pp. xv, 352. $80.00. ISBN: 0-521-47483-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.03.04

Jacobs, Lynn. Early Netherlandish Carved Altarpieces, 1380-1550: Medieval Tastes and Mass Marketing. New York: University of Cambridge Press, 1998. Pp. xv, 352. $80.00. ISBN: 0-521-47483-3.

Reviewed by:

Alfred Acres
University of Oregon

Many or most who come to this book will do so as I did, as someone far more familiar with early Netherlandish painting than with the contemporaneous carved altarpieces under consideration. A study aimed only at those already steeped in the history and scholarship of these complex works would seek a much smaller audience than they deserve. While specialists will know publications such as the 1993 catalogue of Antwerpse Retabels 15de-16de eeuw and articles by such scholars as Robert Didier, Catheline Perier-d'Ieteren, Kim Woods, and Lynn Jacobs herself, Early Netherlandish Carved Altarpieces 1380-1550: Medieval Tastes and Mass Marketing will find a new range of readers, as it steps back to offer a view not only of the altarpieces, but also of the cultural and economic forces that helped shape them. Although its aim is not solely to restore reputations, the book prompts welcome reflection about why such an important and physically imposing family of objects has generally flown under the radar of mainstream art history. None are illustrated, for example, among the most recent editions of the survey texts by Janson, Gardner, or Hartt. For reasons that bubble in abundance here, the distance between modern notions (however vexed) of an artistic canon and the concerns of many late medieval artists and clients looms especially wide on the matter of these items.

The altarpieces in question were produced in many south Netherlandish towns between the late fourteenth and mid- sixteenth centuries, with the greatest numbers coming from Antwerp, Brussels, and Mechelen. Most consist of a carved wooden central element (caisse) flanked by painted wings, which are hinged so that they can be closed over the center. The approximately 350 known today are a fraction of the original complement from the period, which proved all too susceptible to ravages of fire and iconoclasm. A large percentage of the best carved retables are, unlike their painted kin, still to be found in their original churches, some of which escape the art itineraries of all but the most dedicated students of these works.

The subtitle, "Medieval Tastes and Mass Marketing," is much more than a nod toward contextual flavor; the book is divided into two main parts, each framing one of these concerns over several chapters (three for tastes, four for marketing). They are preceded by an introduction that rapidly surveys the material from more familiar angles, addressing the physical nature, origins and functions, social history, and stylistic development of the altarpieces--all in 32 illustrated pages that might well have been expanded. This overview is especially important not only as an opportunity to map the terrain concisely, but also because the rest of the book largely ignores matters of chronology and the tendencies of individual producers. The introduction therefore serves both as orientation and reference for those not acquainted with period and regional shifts, or with the few prime figures whose identities have come down to us, such as Jan Borman of Brussels. In the heart of the book major works and ateliers come and go in short order, summoned where needed to demonstrate larger points. Dates are cited frequently in the text but rarely in the captions to illustrations, where they would be especially useful. Although a few altarpieces are spotlit in a chapter on commissioned sales, readers seeking to learn the "state of the question" on a given shop or retable will generally have to search elsewhere. They have, however, an ideal point of departure in Jacobs' generous references and bibliography.

Part I isolates three aspects of the altarpieces--the narrative, the combining of painting and sculpture, and the architectural ornament--as responses to medieval tastes. Some of the correspondences noted between the appearance of the works and other cultural phenomena, such as those between a strong narrative mode in the images and a similar one in mystery plays and Passion tracts, are familiar. Other correspondences, such as an appreciation of bright colors in costume and cuisine, as well as in the elaborate polychromy of the retables, are less so, and often appealing. But the model in which these parallels are drawn at times places undue weight on "taste." Wisely noting the difficulty of assessing taste from the relatively conventional adjectives that recur in contracts, the author prefers to rely more on "the visual evidence provided by the altarpieces themselves." (22) Though it is clearly recognized that tastemaking would have involved a certain chicken-and-egg dynamic (just as altarpiece producer responded to audience tastes, so audience tastes must have been adjusted by the newer works to which they were exposed), the argument occasionally treads toward circularity when the taste the altarpieces are said to reflect seems to be identified as period taste because it is what appears in the altarpieces. Here one wishes for more critical pressure on the very idea of "taste," which can, like "context," sometimes present itself as a deceptively objective and coherent frame of inquiry.

Findings emerge with more conviction in part II, on mass marketing. This term's modernity is more conspicuous than that of "taste," which may partly explain why it works as a more discrete instrument of analysis. The idea is threaded through chapters on market sales, commissioned sales, the relation between market and commissioned sales, and workshop production. Jacobs argues persuasively that most of these altarpieces were made for purchase on the open market (usually from the sculptors' shops, from weekly local fairs, or from the annual international fairs), rather than by commission. This helps to account for a degree of standardization among Netherlandish carved altarpieces that sets them apart from, say, their more famous cousins produced in south Germany. In matters of content, a producer working "on spec" knew that iconographic eccentricity would shrink the potential clientele for a given work. In matters of style and format, local habits often held conscious sway; altarpieces were sometimes begun with stipulations that they compare well with either a named existing work or the kind to be found in the local market.

These chapters open windows on vivid dimensions of this business, such as the merchants and shippers who bought the altarpieces for resale elsewhere, the specialization of certain guilds and firms in packing and transport, the roles of city stamps on the altarpieces as a kind of quality control guarantee (a chart or appendix illustrating these would have been welcome), and evidence that some works may have been designed partially as advertisements, targeted to attract business from local shoppers or from citizens in a foreign community thus made aware of the quality available in the city of origin. Focusing more closely on the physical origins of the retables, a chapter on workshop production spells out divisions of labor, standardization of certain parts, and other means by which costs were kept low and time spent well. Mechanisms of late medieval artistic production have been studied before, but the range of pertinent documentation and scholarship sifted here is rare, and certainly unprecedented for Netherlandish altarpieces. A number of examples along the way might even have been trimmed out or moved to notes, as they occasionally slow the discussion by reiterating a point or argument already well made.

A conclusion systematically distinguishes Netherlandish carved altarpieces from counterparts produced in Germany, Italy, and Spain, as well as from Netherlandish painted altarpieces. As it usefully underscores what was special about the works in question, this chapter also clarifies the extent to which the entire book relies upon dialectical oppositions. Asserting that the makers consciously sought to define their work in contrast to that of their competition, Jacobs herself pursues a persistently contrastive mode of analysis. Considerable efforts are made, for example, to weigh relationships between iconic and narrative imagery; between polychromy and non- polychromy; and between multiplicity and unity. Though each pair frames a reasonable polarity for observation, their collective usage as markers of taste can feel too neatly categorical. The same is true of concluding remarks that oppose medieval and Renaissance, arguing that Netherlandish carved altarpieces are more the former than the latter. After it is noted that they share less with an Albertian ideal of rational harmony than they do with the horror vacui of much older metalwork and illumination, the altarpieces are deemed a "last gasp of medieval tastes in the face of encroaching Renaissance values" (258). Such determined periodization comes unexpectedly at the end of a book that so impressively scrutinizes the complex and layered concerns of artistic production. This structuring impulse also informs the diptych made of taste and mass marketing. The former, which proceeds on necessarily provisional terms, seems almost a back- formation from a prime contribution in the latter: if it can be shown (as Jacobs has done) that these were products of an industry geared for success in a relatively open, far-flung market, then how do we think about the artistic choices they made--and do so without resort to conventional notions of individual style? "Taste" seems to resolve as an approximate name for the visible intersection of supply and demand.

Those who pursue these objects and questions further will regret the decision not to append a selection of the often inaccessibly published documents so well harvested in the text. It is also unfortunate that the illustrations, all in black and white and too few showing details of spectacularly detailed works, do scant justice to the altarpieces and the learned insight of their interpreter. To be sure, illustrations capable of doing so would price the book beyond the range of many students and scholars who will profit so much from it. One might even contend that fine colorplates and details would contradict the thrust of the study, which is precisely not about the marvels and charms of uniquely compelling works of art. But the strong arguments at work here could easily have supported further dwelling--both visual and verbal--on the extraordinary nuance of certain individual accomplishments, to which Jacobs is clearly sensitive. In the end, though, it is unnecessary to lament this absence much, because the book will encourage new and essential kinds of seeing. Lynn Jacobs has provided cultural, economic, and practical lenses that will draw many of us to peer again with eager eyes at these objects, often overlooked, that were designed to appeal to so many.