The Medieval Review 10.02.05

Marti, Susan, Till-Holger Borchert, Gabriele Keck, eds. Splendour of the Burgundian Court: Charles the Bold (1433-1477). Brussels: Mercatorfonds, 2009. Pp. 384. $80 ISBN 978-0-8014-4853-9. .

Reviewed by:

Dr. D'Arcy J. D. Boulton,
University of Notre Dame

The very splendid book reviewed here is the catalogue of an exhibition of works of art of every sort associated with the court of the fourth of the Dukes of Burgundy of the Valois line established in 1364. The exhibition, called simply Charles the Bold (1433-1477), and organized by a scientific committee of eleven distinguished specialists (including Till-Holger Borchert, Christian Beaufort-Spontin, Peter Jezler, and Werner Paravicini), was a particularly ambitious one, involving four museums in three cities and countries with historical connections to the court in question: the Historisches Museum of Berne (where it was open to the public from April to August 2008); the Bruggemuseum and Groeningenmuseum in Bruges (to which it moved from March to July 2009); and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (where it was held from September 2009 to January 2010). It also included works from sixty-six public collections in forty-one cities in ten countries, and an additional set borrowed from unlisted private collections.

The book Splendour of the Burgundian Court is the latest in a long line of catalogues of comparable exhibitions on the arts of the Burgundian court, selected on the basis of various different principles, among which may be mentioned Die Burgunderbeute und Werke burgundischer Hofkunst (Bernisches Historisches Museum, Bern, 1969, ed. Virgile Moine et al.); Splendours of Flanders), (ed. Alain Arnould, Jean Michel Massing, Cambridge, 1993); L'ordre de la Toison d'or de Philippe le Bon à Philippe le Beau (1430-1505) idéal ou reflet d'une société, (ed. Pierre Cockshaw, Christiane van den Bergen Pantens, Turnhout, 1996), and Art from the Court of Burgundy: The Patronage of Philip the Bold and John the Fearless 1364-1419, Musée des Beaux Arts of Dijon 28 May - 15 September 2004 The Cleveland Museum of Art 24 October 2004 9 January 2005 (ed. Stephen N. Fliegel et al., Paris, c. 2004).

The work here in question resembles most closely the last of these catalogues, covering the reigns of the first two Valois dukes, and like the exhibition it records and explains, it could reasonably be viewed as a successor (though not the chronologically immediate one) to that work. It is divided into four major parts: (1) an historical introduction in seven sections, including a genealogy of the dukes, a series of maps of their domains augmented with contemporary portraits and representations of their arms, and brief biographies of the later dukes and one duchess and their wives or husband, similarly illustrated (20-34); (2) a set of four thematic essays, on the policies, curial culture, and visual images of Charles the Bold, and the liturgical vestments of his Order of the Golden Fleece: "an undisputed masterpiece of European textile art" (38-81); (3) eighty-four (unnumbered) pages of plates, most with one image to a page, accompanied by captions including full identification and a brief commentary (82-167); and (4) a thematically-organized catalogue, itself divided into six chapters, four of which are in their turn divided into from four to six sections, and all of which include an introductory essay and a series of more or less extensive, numbered entries on the objects represented (168-361). Parts 1, 2, and 4 are scarcely less lavishly illustrated than the pages of plates, and images (including maps and charts, among the latter a very useful one of the organization of Charles' court) probably occupy twice as much space as text throughout. The catalogue is followed by a bibliography of works cited, a topographical index of cited works, and other lists, but lacks a general index.

Like the four essays, each of the sections of the introduction and catalogue (thirty in total) was written by one or two of the forty-six contributors listed on p. 14: a number so large as to make it impossible even to note their names here, let alone to comment on the contributions of individual contributors in a review as brief as this must be. The great variety of the subjects covered, and the level of expertise needed to evaluate each of them on the highest technical level, also preclude the possibility that any single reviewer could pass more than a general sort of judgement upon their scholarly merits--even one who, like myself, has been reading related materials for many years, and has written about some of them. That said, it appears to me that the editors and contributors have together maintained a high and broadly uniform level of scholarship throughout the book, and that the relevance and value of the information included and the organization and expression of the various contributions are of comparable quality. In addition, I can say without any reservation that the selection of objects represented and examined in the catalogue is extremely impressive not only in its extent but in its variety, and that the quality of both the photography of these objects and its reproduction in print is superb. It is true that photographs of a substantial number of the objects have been published in earlier works on Burgundian, Netherlandish, and Flemish art--including the catalogues I listed above--but many others had not. In any case, the comprehensive character, revealing thematic organization, and generally superior quality of all of the images published in this volume makes it the new touchstone for the arts of the court of Duke Charles the Bold (or Rash, as his cognomen le Téméraire is more accurately rendered, and distinguished from the cognomen le Hardi, normally translated 'the Bold', borne by the first Valois duke).

It will be useful to conclude with a brief survey of the range of artistic forms and contexts for their display represented and examined in the catalogue. In the order in which they are presented, the forms include embroidery, parade armour, luxury fabrics, paintings (specifically altarpieces and donor portraits), tapestries, book-illustrations (including fine pen-drawings with and without colored washes as well as densely-painted illuminations) and various luxurious items created in gold, silver, crystal, and steel, for use in the ducal chapel or table, or in the context of knightly games and serious warfare. The contexts separately examined themselves include political meetings (especially that between Duke Charles and the Emperor held at Trier in 1473, at which the former sought from the latter a royal crown); festive banquets (and the theatrical performances and dances given at them); equally theatrical tournaments, pas d'armes, and jousts; and courtly pastimes (especially hunting, dancing, and board games). The composition and performance of musical works for both chapel and hall is also examined, albeit briefly, and like all of the other subjects, beautifully illustrated.

In short, the catalogue presents a vivid picture of the arts of magnificence of the fifteenth century as practiced for one of the most magnificent of European princes in that period, along with a remarkable collection of representations of the splendid ceremonial life of his court. It also includes an impressive variety of portraits in various media, including portrait-medals by Giovanni Candida and others (224-229); of which the full-page painted portraits of the Duchess Marie (Pll. 79, 80) and those of her husband, Maximilian (Pl. 81, 82) are particularly striking. The only real criticism I might make is a very minor one: namely, the use of the word "chain" (e.g., in the caption of Pl. 3) to refer to what in Middle French was always called the colier and in Modern English is normally called (like the comparable insignia of other orders) the "collar" of the Order of the Golden Fleece.