16.07.05, van Egmond and Chavannes-Mazel, eds., Medieval Art in the Northern Netherlands before Van Eyck

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Douglas Brine

The Medieval Review 16.07.05

van Egmond, Anne-Maria J., and Claudine A. Chavannes-Mazel , eds. Medieval Art in the Northern Netherlands before Van Eyck: New Facts and Features. Utrecht: Clavis Stichting Middeleeuwse Kunst, 2014. pp. 224. ISBN: 978-90-75616-00-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Douglas Brine
Trinity University, San Antonio 

This welcome publication consists of fourteen essays on various aspects of medieval Northern Netherlandish art and its historiography. The papers are the result of a 2012 conference held in Amsterdam to mark the 75th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of G.J. Hoogewerff's five-volume De Noord Nederlandsche Schilderkunst (1936-1947), a pioneering and ambitious survey, which, as Claudine Chavannes-Mazel notes in the epilogue, "no currently active art historian would ever dare to write" (192). Despite the reference to Van Eyck in the title, only one paper focuses on panel painting; the rest of the volume addresses wall painting and manuscript illumination--in line with Hoogewerff's interests--together with architectural and tomb sculpture, areas that he ignored. Wessel Krul's excellent introduction situates Hoogewerff's Schilderkunst within the context of his other publications, his biography (notably his role as director of the Dutch Historical Institute in Rome), and the state of European art history in the second quarter of the twentieth century. Although Hoogewerff, who "was fond of inventing new denominations" (16), has received credit for introducing iconology to art history, Krul argues that the kind of methodology he proposed was much less intellectually ambitious than that espoused by the likes of Aby Warburg and Erwin Panofsky.

Although the book's stated focus is on art produced before Van Eyck, it contains material of interest to those concerned with him. Of particular note is Chavannes-Mazel's essay on the Utrecht illuminator Michiel van der Borch, who by proudly signing and dating his full-page Jerusalem miniature in Jacob van Maerlant's Rijmbijbel (The Hague, Museum Meermanno) in 1332 anticipates Van Eyck's comparably self-referential inscriptions by a century. Indra Kneepkens and Arie Wallert describe the findings of technical investigation of the condition of the Lords of Montfoort memorial (ca. 1400; Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), one of the earliest surviving Netherlandish panel paintings. Aside from its pre-Eyckian rarity, the picture's commemorative function provides an important precedent for the memorial paintings that Van Eyck was to execute several decades later for Joris van der Paele and Nicolas van Maelbeke. The painting is poorly preserved--an instructive (if alarming) digital "damage map" (84, fig. 8) of its left portion illustrates the extent of the damage and retouching. It has been suggested that the Montfoort memorial was created as a cheaper alternative to a stone monument; however, Kneepkens and Wallert's examination reveals just how striking the painting must have once been. With its rich colors and extensive use of gold and silver leaf (now abraded and overpainted), its splendor entirely befitted the noble status of those it commemorated. Despite its compromised state today, the picture serves as a valuable case study in early restoration practices, since its inscription records that it was verlicht (translated as "brightened up") in 1608 and again "for the third time" in 1770. It seems remarkable that care was still being taken to keep the panel in a respectable state at a time when medieval paintings were deeply unfashionable; one wonders if this is attributable to emerging antiquarian interest or whether it was because it was still seen as a repository of familial memory.

The theme of the "afterlife" of artworks from commemorative contexts extends to a couple of the other papers in the volume. Jitske Jasperse considers the drastic restoration of the thirteenth-century effigial tomb of Count Gerald IV of Guelders (d. 1229) and his wife Margaret of Brabant (d. 1231) in Roermond Munster, and Anne-Maria van Egmond discusses the alterations--newly revealed through infra-red reflectography (IRR)--that were made in the early fifteenth century to the Crucifixion wall painting above the altar in the burial chapel of Bishop Guy of Avesnes (d. 1317) in Utrecht Cathedral. Both authors connect these changes to the interventions of later rulers. Jasperse hypothesizes that Charles, Duke of Guelders, was responsible for the renovation of the Roermond tomb in ca. 1500. She persuasively argues that Charles, whose authority had been undermined by conflicts with surrounding powers, initiated the restoration to demonstrate his lineage and claim his right to his title, perhaps inspired by the efforts of his Burgundian great-uncle, Philip the Good, who had made analogous efforts to memorialize long-dead ancestors in order to assert his rule of their territories. Similarly persuasive is Van Egmond's proposal that the repainting of the Avesnes Chapel's mural, dated stylistically to ca. 1410, was at the behest of Count William VI of Holland, who in 1409 had diverted funds to augment the declining revenues of Guy of Avesnes' foundation. The original composition--a Crucifixion flanked by St John and the Virgin--was altered to incorporate the figure of St Margaret. The suggestion that the addition of the patroness of childbirth can be linked to comital concerns of female fertility at the time is plausible but perhaps not wholly convincing. As Van Egmond demonstrates, the chapel's altar had been dedicated to St Margaret from the outset, around the time of Guy of Avesnes' death. It seems possible that her inclusion in the repainted mural may simply have been because saints were generally rather more valued as intercessors in 1409 than they were in 1317, and by then there was a greater expectation that altar imagery should reflect altar dedications than had previously been the case.

Many of the contributions to Medieval Art in the Northern Netherlands reaffirm the importance of technical analysis for art historical inquiry, from assessing the condition of surviving works, like the Montfoort memorial, to revealing lost works, like the original Avesnes Crucifixion. Techniques such as IRR, x-radiography, and pigment analysis have now become quite familiar to scholars of Northern European painting, but this volume reminds us of the possibilities they offer for investigating artworks other than easel paintings. Since J.R.J. van Asperen de Boer's groundbreaking work in the 1960s, IRR has been primarily used for scrutinizing panel paintings, yet the wonderfully clear IRR images of Van der Borch's miniatures, discussed in both Chavannes-Mazel and Wendelien van Welie-Vink's papers, are suggestive of the insights into illuminators' working methods provided by such means. Likewise, Van Egmond's revelatory IRR of the Utrecht Crucifixion (61) points to its potential for studying wall paintings. Technical analysis of another element of the Avesnes Chapel--the bishop's black Tournai stone tomb--features in Sanne Frequin's paper. In this case, an x-ray fluorescence scanner was used to examine its surface for traces of polychromy, the results of which lead Frequin to conclude that the tomb was once entirely painted. In its damaged and denuded present state it is hard to imagine the tomb's original appearance, although Frequin helpfully illustrates a fragment of a comparable tomb which retains some of its original paintwork (169, fig. 6). We are used to thinking of medieval tombs as being largely monochromatic, especially those carved in prized materials like Tournai stone or alabaster, but it is tantalizing to imagine what similar investigation of other such monuments could reveal about their original, vividly colored states.

As Kees van der Ploeg lays out in his lucid account of the reception of Hoogewerff's Schilderkunst, one of the perpetual problems of studying Netherlandish art from this period is determining the degree to which cultural boundaries coincide with (often arbitrarily-imposed) political borders. The tendency has been to emphasize areas of commonality between the Northern and Southern Low Countries. Perhaps surprisingly though, Frequin's tightly argued paper is just about the only one in this volume to explore such connections. She makes a convincing case that all but one of the mourner figures surrounding Guy of Avesnes' tomb chest are attired as members of the laity and represent his relatives, meaning that this is the first example in the Northern Netherlands of what Anne McGee Morganstern termed a "tomb of kinship." Frequin then links it to similar genealogically-themed tombs in Valenciennes made for Guy's relatives, and suggests that the Utrecht tomb may have also originated in the south, from the same Tournai workshop.

By contrast, but in line with Hoogewerff's own inclinations, some of the book's other contributors look eastwards in their search for precedents and comparisons. Emanuel Klinkenberg notes that the style of some recently uncovered thirteenth-century wall paintings at Britsum, Friesland, recalls Westphalian church decoration, with influences from Lower Saxony and Rhineland. The absence of any comparative illustrations though makes it difficult to assess the similarities observed by the author. Susan Suèr discusses the somewhat crude miniatures of a thirteenth-century plenary from the Bethlehem Monastery near Doetinchem, a book that retains its sumptuous original binding. She argues that the (rather less impressive) miniatures contained within have more to do with Germanic illumination than any French influence. In the case of Michiel van der Borch, documented as a citizen of Utrecht, the international scope of the influences detectable in his oeuvre has led to suggestions that he was Flemish and that he had even emigrated to England, but Chavannes-Mazel concludes that he spent his time "living quietly... in Utrecht, probably for over forty years" (111). Indeed, the cosmopolitan environment of medieval Utrecht, reflected in its artistic products, is evident throughout this book. This is best exemplified by Miranda Bloem's meticulous case study of a single iconographic model. She shows how a Presentation in the Temple designed in ca. 1415 by one of the so-called Boucicaut Masters in Paris was copied by the Utrecht illuminators known as the Masters of Zweder van Culemborg. In one instance though, the Zweder Masters modified the composition and used it for the Circumcision instead, opting for a different, iconographically correct model for the Presentation, the source for which Bloem identifies as an altarpiece by Ambrogio Lorenzetti of 1342. Finding no "traceable intermediary step in French art" (144) as one would expect, she hypothesizes that this Sienese motif may have found its way to the Northern Netherlands via the international port city of Bruges in Flanders.

One of the book's most valuable features, particularly for anglophone readers, are the snapshots it provides of the state of research in certain areas of Northern Netherlandish medieval art. These complement the historiographic analyses of Hoogewerff's magnum opus and its legacy with which the book begins and concludes. Van der Ploeg's paper, for example, which hails Hoogewerff's inclusion of wall painting (attributable to his experience of Italian frescos) as "a major innovation" for its time (25), offers a survey of the field since De Noord Nederlandsche Schilderkunst. Hoogewerff almost entirely ignored architectural sculpture though, and judging from Elizabeth den Hartog's lament for the neglect with which this "Cinderella of the arts" has been treated, it seems that he was not alone in his indifference. Den Hartog advocates the compilation of a new inventory to aid the preservation of Netherlandish architectural sculpture and argues that it should be seen as an intrinsic part of buildings, requiring careful attention to its precise locations and viewership. She makes an eloquent and forceful case yet one cannot help but feel it would have benefited from a rather more inspiring set of illustrated examples. Although primarily focused on the Gelre Armorial (Brussels, Royal Library), an important heraldic manuscript created in ca. 1400, Wim van Anrooij's interesting essay assesses the state of heraldic research in the Netherlands. He notes that the general--but undeserved--disinterest in Dutch heraldry is encapsulated by the problematic publication history of the Armorial and the inattention paid to its contents and material history.

Medieval Art in the Northern Netherlands before Van Eyck offers new information, fresh insights, and valuable perspectives on the subjects of Hoogewerff's scholarship, while expanding its scope both in terms of the material covered and the means by which it is investigated. The book is handsomely produced and beautifully illustrated; it is highly recommended.

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