14.01.09, Carlvant, Manuscript Painting in Thirteenth-Century Flanders

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Richard A. Leson

The Medieval Review 14.01.09

Carlvant, Kerstin. Manuscript Painting in Thirteenth-Century Flanders: Bruges, Ghent and the Circle of the Counts. Harvey Miller Studies in Medieval and Early Renaissance Art History. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2012. Pp. ix, 542. ISBN: 978-1-905375-67-7.

Reviewed by:
Richard A. Leson
University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee

This volume represents the long-awaited publication of Kerstin Carlvant's doctoral dissertation devoted to a corpus of manuscripts attributable to Bruges and Ghent on liturgical and pictorial grounds. [1] The iconographic consistency of these manuscripts, particularly among calendar decorations that depict the Labors of the Months, is strong evidence of distinctive regional tastes. Carlvant's substantive investigation of such trends thus represents an important contribution to our understanding of book illumination in the Flemish milieu. Around seventy manuscripts, predominantly liturgical books, are discussed and cataloged. These include such seminal examples of Gothic book illumination as the Missal made in Ghent for Sint-Pieter's Abbey (Ghent, STAM, Bijlokecollectie, MS A60-1) and the Psalter of Gui de Dampierre (Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS 10607).

Carlvant has refined her organization of the Bruges-Ghent corpus since her dissertation. Most noticeably, the manuscripts are no longer discussed in terms of the "Eerste" and "Tweede Groep," her original designations for manuscripts painted by successive "generations" of Bruges-Ghent painters. In most respects, however, her connoisseurial approach to book painting remains unchanged. The volume is divided into two parts. "Part one" consists of nine chapters, the first of which provides a brief discussion of the Flemish historical context. Each of the following eight chapters is devoted to a significant painter or workshop of the Bruges-Ghent region. Prolonged formal analysis, speculation as to shared or lost pictorial prototypes, and considerations of foreign (i.e. French or German) "influence" enable the author to reconstruct the careers of a "Bruges Master," a "Franciscan Master," a "Seminary Master," a "Ghent Master," and a "Dampierre Master," to name only the most prominent painters discussed. While the author's approach will undoubtedly strike many as conservative, the stylistic relationships she identifies among the manuscripts of the corpus remain undeniable.

More problematic is a seeming disengagement with the methodological developments of the past three decades, best illustrated by a perfunctory "Abbreviated Bibliography" that lacks reference to any publications later in date than the 1980s. Many of the manuscripts in Carlvant's Bruges-Ghent corpus have appeared in major publications since that time, and it is curious that she does not address these sources, if only to disagree with their conclusions. Both the Ghent Missal and Psalter of Gui de Dampierre, for example, appeared in the catalogue for the exhibition Medieval Mastery: Book Illumination from Charlemagne to Charles the Bold 800-1475 (Brepols, 2003). Other omissions, for example of Mauritis Smeyers' Vlaamse miniaturen van de 8ste tot het midden van de 16de eeuw (Davidsfonds, 1998) or Elizabeth Moore Hunt's Illuminating the Borders of French and Flemish Manuscripts (Routledge, 2006), are more glaring.

The author's detailed (and more contextual) account of Psalters illuminated under the auspices of the mendicant orders is perhaps her strongest work and represents an important contribution to the history of the Franciscans and Dominicans in medieval Flanders. Iconographic innovations attributed to the so-called "Franciscan Master," for example the monumental Christ of the Last Judgment featured on a Beatus page of a Bruges Psalter (New York, PML MS. 106, fol. 10v) are provocatively analyzed with reference to Franciscan theological interests and eschatological currents. Similarly, Carlvant persuasively interprets the standardized Apostolic and Christological iconographic repertoires of other mid-thirteenth century Bruges Psalters as the result of collaboration between painters and friar advisors. These and other putative relationships between painters, advisors, and patrons (clerical and secular) are argued with meticulous attention to textual and archaeological evidence in a subsequent catalogue that features individual descriptions for each manuscript. This portion of the volume will prove tremendously valuable for scholars of Gothic book production. Particularly interesting are the author's proposals for the date, patronage and localization of important manuscripts. Relative to the protracted formal analysis that characterizes the initial chapters of the book, the catalogue is clearly more accessible. Overall, one wonders if it would have been more economical to integrate the most salient conclusions of the earlier chapters into each catalogue entry under the headings for "Illuminators and Scribe."

Although praiseworthy, the catalogue is not without problems. Bibliographic entries for individual manuscripts are comprehensive prior to the 1980s but, as was the case with the volume's initial chapters, publications later in date are strangely absent from many entries. Equally curious is the author's seeming unawareness of important manuscripts that emerged on the art market since the 1980s, including an extraordinary Bruges Psalter offered by the Swiss dealer Jörn Günther in 2008 and the so-called "Psalter of Margaret the Black" sold by Christie's in 2010. [2] Both manuscripts exhibit important similarities to the work of the "Dampierre Master." What implications might these manuscripts hold for understanding of the famous Dampierre Psalter? Such questions await further research.

"Part two" includes a series of tables dedicated to the iconography of Psalter calendars and historiated initials and analyses of scripts and ruling patterns. These tables will prove beneficial for comparative iconographic study and attendant considerations of book production. Following the tables devoted to the standardized Apostolic and Christological iconography of "First-Generation Bruges Psalters" is a short discussion of the role of the friars in the creation and promulgation of such imagery that, however insightful, might have better served the author's argument if integrated into the earlier discussion of the mendicant orders.

Following "Part two" are two short appendices. The first is dedicated to manuscript painting in the region of Arras, Cambrai, Tournai, and Lille. Here, again, the author's disengagement with the literature of the past three decades is curious. Surely any discussion of painting styles of this region should reference the numerous publications by Alison Stones? More puzzling is the second appendix, devoted to an important Psalter now in Los Angeles (J. Paul Getty Museum, MS 14). Sold by the Parisian auction house Ader-Picar-Tajan in 1985, Getty MS. 14 now commonly figures in discussions of the famous Morgan Picture Bible (New York, PML MS. 638) on account of shared stylistic and iconographic features. Due to its Flemish origins (its calendar agrees with those of other Flemish Psalters), the Psalter is cited as proof of the Picture Bible's origins in northeastern France or Flanders. [3] According to Carlvant, however, Getty MS. 14 is a medieval Psalter that was altered by an international team of forgers in the early 1980s in order to resolve (and thus to capitalize upon) the long-contested issue of the Picture Bible's provenance. Despite the forgers' efforts, she argues, idiosyncrasies of style and iconography prove that the Psalter's original miniatures "were scraped off to make room for the figural program now dominating the book" (387). Most remarkable, however, is her claim that the forgers' work was prompted by "speculation and gossip surrounding my dissertation during the period of defense in the spring of 1978" (311, n.23). However extraordinary the reception of Carlvant's thesis in 1978, an internal study of Getty MS. 14 conducted in the early 1990s demonstrated the authenticity of the Psalter's miniatures on the grounds of stylistic, textual, codicological, material, and scientific analysis. It is difficult not to conclude that Carlvant's refusal to accept the Getty Psalter stems from the manuscript's resistance to the biographical-developmental scenarios entailed by her methodology and the fact that the manuscript was unknown to her at the time of the completion of her dissertation.

The volume's hundreds of illustrations--including many miniatures unpublished heretofore--are most welcome. In a study so ardently devoted to matters of style, however, it might have helped the author's argumentation to integrate at least some of these into the body of the text, or perhaps to provide details of pertinent stylistic features. In this respect, it is especially unfortunate that some of the figures are mislabeled or even missing (90, fig.39b; 92, fig.49b). Particularly regrettable is the omission of any illustration for the monumental "Tree of Jesse with Dominant Virgin," the subject of the Beatus initial in the Psalter Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Liturg. 396 (175, fig.13g), one of the most distinctive and interesting images in the whole of the Bruges-Ghent corpus.

Despite these problems, Manuscript Painting in Thirteenth-Century Flanders. Bruges, Ghent, and the Circle of the Counts is an extremely important contribution to the study of Gothic book illumination. The volume's catalogue will surely prove the leading source for research into the Bruges-Ghent corpus for years to come.



1. Kerstin B.E. Carlvant, "Thirteenth-Century Illumination in Bruges and Ghent" (Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, New York, 1978).

2. As of this writing the 2008 Jörn Günther catalogue is still available online at http://guenther-rarebooks.com/catalog-online-09/10.php. For the Christie's sale see https://pantherlink.uwm.edu/service/home/~/%27THE%20PSALTER%20OF%20MARGARET%20%27THE%20BLACK%27%27%2C%20Countess%20of%20Flanders%20and%20Hainault%2C%20in%20Latin%2C%20ILLUMINATED%20MANUSCRIPT%20ON%20VELLUM%20%20Books%20%26%20Manuscripts%20Auctionli.pdf?auth=co&loc=en_US&id=261676&part=2

3. See, for example, M. Alison Stones, "Questions of Style and Provenance in the Morgan Picture Bible," in C. Hourihane, ed., Between the Picture and the Word: Manuscript Studies from the Index of Christian Art (University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 114.

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Author Biography

Richard A. Leson

University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee