Bruges and the 'Flemish Primitives'

Connoisseurs and the general public alike are well aware that the collective name 'Flemish Primitives', used to designate the artists of the fifteenth-century Southern Netherlands, is not intended to be pejorative. This rather misleading name for what is, for the most part, a highly accomplished body of late-medieval and pre-Renaissance paintings, arose in the nineteenth century. It expresses the Romantics' sense of nostalgia for the pure, spiritual and innovative character of this monumental, technically innovative and highly skilled school of oil painting.

It is relatively easy in terms of cultural history to explain how Bruges, the most Burgundian city in Flanders, became the birthplace of this brilliant form of panel painting. The concentration of wealth and taste in Bruges during the 'waning of the Middle Ages' was unparalleled. The town was the residence of the dukes of Burgundy, the cradle of the prestigious Order of the Golden Fleece, a partner of the German Hanseatic League, a European trading hub and the leading centre of Italian banking in Northern Europe. Consequently, fifteenth-century Bruges offered an extremely attractive supply of wealthy and powerful patrons and was thus the ideal setting in which to pursue artistic creativity.

The cosmopolitan character of the city of Van Eyck and Memling encouraged the immigration of a great deal of artistic talent, producing a late-Gothic Flemish answer to the early-Renaissance painting of the Florentine Quattrocento (fifteenth century). While Florentine masters practised a rational form of painting, full of harmony, ideal beauty and formal perfection, inspired by antique art, the Flemish Primitives opted for a high level of optical realism, empirical perspective and a natural, physical and sensual representation of man and his environment.

Other characteristics of Flemish Primitive art arose from the technique of oil painting- the-perfecting of which is traditionally ascribed to Jan van Eyck - the transparent representation of colours, maximum luminosity and brilliant, highly detailed recreation of matter. Whereas the majority of paintings produced in Bruges and Flanders were done on wooden panels, the principal means of pictorial expression in fifteenth, century Italy was the wall painting or fresco. The amazingly fine condition of many surviving early Flemish panel paintings is undoubtedly attributable to the masterly technique of the artists and the quality of the pigments they used, which were bound with oil.

Although a great many Flemish Primitive works survive abroad - numerous paintings were originally commissioned by foreign patrons - the strongest geographical concentration is to be found in Bruges and more especially the Groeninge Museum, which was opened in 1929-1930 to house the bulk of the city's Flemish Primitive treasures. With the exception of a few fifteenth-century panels that have survived in situ in a number of Bruges' historical churches, and the small but world-famous Memling collection in historic Saint John's Hospital, most of the Flemish and Bruges Primitives are displayed at the Groeninge Museum. The museum's collection includes at least one representative work associated with each of the leading early Flemish masters, making it the single largest concentration anywhere in the world of painted masterpieces from the Flemish-Burgundian fifteenth century. It includes (in chronological order) Jan van Eyck (died in Bruges in 1441), Rogier van der Weyden (died in Brussels in 1464), Petrus Christus (died in Bruges in 1475 or 1476), Dirk Bouts (died c. 1475), Hugo van der Goes (died near Brussels in 1482), Hans Memling (died in Bruges in 1494) and Gerard David (died in Bruges in 1523).

This publication selects one masterpiece by each of the seven masters in the Flemish Primitives Gallery of the Groeninge Museum and provides it with an explanatory text and a series of fascinating detail photographs. These will help the reader and viewer to derive the maximum visual pleasure from each work. Before embarking on the actual selection, however, the second part of this introduction presents a survey and discussion of the seven masters, their lives and principal stylistic traits.

JAN VAN EYCK (c. 1390-1441), by whom the Groeninge Museum has two original works and an early copy, is generally viewed as the founder of the Flemish Primitive 'school' and its universally admired optical realism. He was probably bom in around 1390 in Maaseik, now in Dutch Limburg, and moved to Bruges after spending three years in The Hague as court painter to John of Bavaria, count of Holland. He visited the Flemish city in 1426 before settling there for good in 1430, taking the post of court painter to the great Duke Philip the Good, who also sent the painter on foreign diplomatic missions. His greatest masterpiece is undoubtedly the Lamb of God altarpiece in Saint Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, which was begun by his brother Hubert and completed by Jan in 1432. The second largest and most important composition by Jan van Eyck is the altarpiece with the Virgin of Saint Donatian and Canon Joris van der Paele, the donor. It was painted four years before the Ghent altarpiece and is now kept in the Groeninge Museum. Dated 1436, it is a brilliant devotional panel in terms of both composition and colouring, and is the first of the seven Bruges works to be discussed and illustrated in detail in this book.

Jan van Eyck was one of the earliest Flemish painters to sign and date his works (on the frame), adding his famous artist's motto :'als ich can' (as good as I can make it). His famous interest in Antiquity, literature and cartography, his technical brilliance and his diplomatic missions make him the prototype of the Renaissance artist in the Low Countries. He also painted a great many individual portraits of prominent people, some of them identified, from contemporary pre-humanist circles. He had an immense influence on Flemish painting in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. In addition to their technical perfection, accomplishment and fine state of preservation, Jan van Eyck's paintings also stand out for their cool, objective yet fascinating portrayal of humans (the saints) and nature, which he recreated brilliantly in microcosm.

The principal surviving works of Jan van Eyck outside the Groeninge Museum are spread all over the world, in the museums of Antwerp, Berlin, Dresden, London, Madrid, Melbourne, Paris and Vienna, and in Saint Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent.

Van Eyck's chronological and stylistic successor in our survey of fifteenth-century Southern Netherlandish and Flemish masters is ROGIER VAN DER WEYDEN (1399/1400-1464). Where Jan was the master of pure observation, Rogier combined observation with emotion. This latter characteristic is, of course, more clearly displayed in his many Passion scenes - which are designed to move the viewer- than in the two compositions in the Groeninge Museum. These are the Portrait of Philip the Good and the monumental Virgin of Saint Luke, both of which are represented in Bruges in the shape of late-fifteenth or early-sixteenth-century copies. Van der Weyden, born in Tournai at the turn of the fifteenth century, received his master's training in the workshops of Jacques Daret and Robert Campin, two lesser-known masters of his native city. He attained free master status in ~1432, and worked as municipal artist in Brussels from around 1433 until his death in 1464. There is no evidence that Van der Weyden spent any time in Bruges, not even a short period between Tournai and'Brussels. His output is included in the Brabant branch of Flemish Primitive art, in the same way as Dirk Bouts, another Primitive from outside Bruges who is represented in brilliant fashion at the municipal Groeninge Museum.

No signed works by Rogier van der Weyden survive, but a number of paintings, now spread all over the world, may be firmly attributed to him on the basis of historical documents. These include the Miraflores altarpiece in Berlin, the Crucifixion and Deposition from the Cross in Madrid, anda related composition in the museum at Philadelphia.

Van der Weyden's monumental, mature style - evident from the mid-fifteenth century onwards- is characterised by its dramatic charge, human expressiveness, formal refinement and Eyckian realism. His numerous Virgins and portraits also bear witness to his immense plastic eloquence and grace.

PETRUS CHRISTUS (c. 1415/20-1475/76) was a famous contemporary of Van der Weyden, who spent virtually his entire career in Bruges. Like Jan van Eyck, his great model and teacher, Christus came from outside Bruges, and was probably born in the town of Baarle in the modern-day Dutch province of Noord-Brabant some time between 1415 and 1420. He settled in Bruges permanently in 1444, and died in the city in 1475 or 1476 after a brilliant career.

The Flemish Primitives Gallery in the Groeninge Museum boasts three fifteenth-century panels that may be ascribed to Petrus Christus: the undated left wing of a triptych with Isabel of Portugal and Saint Elisabeth, which probably came from the collection of Margaret of Austria, and the two panels dated 1452 showing the Annunciation and the Nativity. Despite some fairly heavy restoration, the principal stylistic features of this great Bruges follower and assimilator of Van Eyck Can be clearly read from the three works in the museum: the expertly handled volume of the human subjects, the fairly precise perspective, the Eyckian representation of physical matter, the highly refined colouring and the pictorial eclecticism with which he combined the influence of other masters (Van Eyck, Van der Weyden and Bouts).

The three best-known compositions by Petrus Christus are probably his fascinating portrait of Edward Grymestone in London, his charming portrait of a girl in Berlin, and his iconographically rich Saint Eligius in New York.

The custodians of Saint Saviour's Church in Bruges recently gave the triptych with the Martyrdom of Saint Hippolytus by DIRK BOUTS (c. 1400/1420-1475) to the Groeninge Museum for permanent safe-keeping. In so doing, a significant gap in the municipal collection of Flemish Primitive work was filled.

Although this originally Dutch (Haarlem?) artist probably never set foot in Bruges, spending most of his career in Louvain in the modern Belgian province of Vlaams-Brabant, he is still viewed as one of the most important Southern Netherlandish masters and a Flemish Primitive. Archive material suggests that Dirk Bouts married in Louvain some time around 1448, but he does not officially tumup in the town until 1457. His 1475 will, which survives intact, and numerous other written sources enable us to identify his principal works both chronologically and topographically.

His two triptychs in Saint Peter's Church in Louvain, the Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus and the Last Supper, were painted in 1466 and between 1464 and 1467 respectively on behalf of the Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament.

His other most famous creations, which also remain in Belgium, are the two brilliant scenes with the Justice of Emperor Otto, now in the Mus~es Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. They were commissioned some time after 1468 by the city authorities. The art of Bouts the Elder, who had an artist son of the same name, was strongly influenced by Rogier van der Weyden, the other great Brabant Primitive, but also displayed a number of highly personal characteristics. His human subjects are reserved, immobile and yet phlegmatic, their gestures restrained. They do not stand before the landscape, but seem to merge with it. The importance Bouts attached to the execution of his landscape settings, even at this early stage, make him a pioneer of pre-Renaissance landscape painting. This important stylistic feature is clearly visible in his Bruges Hippolytus triptych. The left wing, with the donor figures, was not painted by Dirk Bouts himself, but is attributed to his no less famous or talented contemporary Hugo van der Goes.

HUGO VAN DER GOES (c. 1430-1482), who pursued most of his career in Ghent, died in 1482 (the same year as Duchess Mary of Burgundy) at the Rouge Cloitre at Oudergem near Brussels. It is also possible that he worked for a time in Bruges. His innovative and individual personality place him in the younger generation of fifteenth-century artists. A new expressiveness, an emotional approach to his still primarily religious scenes and characters and his psychological engagement with his sharply observed dramatis personae allow us to classify Van der Goes as a pre-modem artist. He became a free master in Ghent's painters' corporation, the Guild of Saint Luke, in 1467, and was appointed dean of the guild in 1474. His entire oeuvre has been reconstructed on the basis of what is perhaps his most famous work, the Portinari triptych in Florence - the only work attributed to Van der Goes by early sources. His other principal attributions are to be found in the museums of Bruges, Brussels, New York and Vienna.

The Groeninge Museum boasts two highly representative Van der Goes compositions: the left wing with the donors' portraits from the Saint Hippolytus altarpiece by Dirk Bouts (loaned to the museum by the custodians of Saint Saviour's Church) and the Dormitio, a moving interpretation of the Death of the Virgin, which uses form and colour to convey the drama and emotion of the scene. It is a fairly large panel that belonged originally to the Abbey of the Dunes in Koksijde, which was destroyed in the sixteenth century. Its gloomy mood and content have often, and perhaps wrongly, caused it to be dated towards the end of the master's life, when he was stricken by illness and insanity. Despite a certain debt to his great predecessors, Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden (monumentality and physicality on the one hand and linear harmony and sculptural effects on the other), his unadulterated and universal talent as a painter places him in the same league as great masters like Rembrandt, Goya, Ensor and Van Gogh. He had an immense influence on several Bruges and French masters towards the end of the century, specifically Gerard David and the anonymous Master of Moulins, who might actually have been his pupil.

The artist most closely associated with declining, late-Gothic Bruges, was undoubtedly HANS MEMLING (c. 1435/40-1494). He was another highly productive immigrant painter from the Burgundian era. Memling was bom in Seligenstadt in the Hessen region of Germany, and found his way to Bruges via Brussels, where he almost certainly studied under Rogier van der Weyden. The city of Van Eyck was still an attractive destination for an up-and-coming artist and he settled there in 1465. He remained in Bruges until his death, thirty years later, numbering the wealthiest burghers and merchants in fifteenth-century Europe amongst his clientele. Memling himself became one of Bruges' richest citizens. Of all the Flemish Primitives, his is the largest surviving oeuvre (ninety works), a significant proportion of which are still to be found in Bruges itself: six authentic masterpieces in historic Saint John's Hospital (now the Memling Museum), which was one of the master's most important patrons, and two no less fine ensembles at the Groeninge Museum. The latter consist of two exterior wings with the Annunciation, fragments of the Crabbe triptych, and the whole of the monumental Moreel or Saint Christopher triptych, which was installed in 1484 in Saint James' Church in Bruges by Willem Moreel, a leading Bruges politician, and his wife Barbara van Vlaenderbergh. The other works associated with Memling in the Flemish Primitives Gallery are a valuable late fifteenth-century copy of the Deposition from the Cross, the companion piece of the diptych with the Weeping Women (the original version of which is in the Capilla Real in Granada), and a contemporary copy of a Virgin with Child (now in Lisbon).

The Bruges-based German master, who, like Van Eyck and Petrus Christus before him, exerted an immense influence on the subsequent generation of painters, helped found a characteristic late-Gothic Bruges style. Memling's charming, paradisiacal and luxurious paintings breathe tranquillity, sentiment, refinement and formal perfection. The spiritual power and dramatic depth of his great predecessors and teachers (Van Eyck and Van der Weyden) give way to an idealised presentation of dreamy and angelic figures. Memling's portrait work also follow in the footsteps of his Brussels and Bruges predecessors.

It is hardly surprising, given the large number of Memling paintings that survive, that examples are to be found in all the world's museums of early art. Chief amongst them are Brussels and Antwerp in Belgium, Rotterdam and The Hague in the Netherlands, Paris and Strasbourg in France, Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt and Cologne in Germany, London and Windsor in England, Madrid and Granada in Spain, Vicenza, Turin, Rome and Genoa in Italy, Vienna in Austria and New York, Washington, Kansas City, Williamstown, Fort Worth, Passadena and Boston in the United States.

The final master to be included in this anthology of the Flemish Primitives in Bruges' Groeninge Museum is GERARD DAVID (c. 1460-1523). Born in Oudewater, Holland, the artist enrolled as a free master in Bruges' painters' guild in 1484, ten years before the death of Memling. He was the final great Flemish Primitive artist and a transitional figure linking the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (and the late-Gothic and Renaissance periods). His clear interest in the art of the new era is also evident from the fact that he acquired free master status in the new artistic metropolis of Antwerp (in 1515), despite pursuing a long and successful career in Bruges. It is also likely that he made the common Northern Renaissance artist's trip to Italy. Despite these new influences, however, Gerard David still worked primarily in the Flemish, and more especially the Bruges tradition. He successfully and harmoniously assimilated the powerful legacy of his great predecessors Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, Van der Goes and Memling with his own pictorial nature and sense of plasticity and composition. His most obviously Northern characteristics - his attention to landscape and the introverted nature of the drama and dramatis personae - are shown off to optimum effect in the two monumental ensembles in Bruges' Groeninge Museum: file triptych with the Baptism of Christ and the diptych with the Judgement of Cambyses, which was ordered by the city authorities in 1498 as a justice scene for the Town Hall.

Like the German Memling, the Dutchman Gerard David became a wealthy citizen and a respected and sought-after painter in Bruges. One of his masterpieces, The Virgin with Saints in the museum at Rouen, France, was originally ordered to decorate the high altar of the chapel in the Carmelite convent in Bruges. Other scattered masterpieces by Gerard David include the Wedding at Cana in the Louvre in Paris, the monumental Calvary in the Palazzo Bianco in Genoa, and several versions of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, concentrating on the landscape setting, and the intimate Virgin spoon-feeding the Child in Brussels.

Some of David's Virgins (including those in Paris and Madrid) are still strongly reminiscent of Van der Weyden or Memling. The Adoration of the Magi in Munich refers to Van der Goes. David's pronounced eclecticism does not, however, detract from the harmony of his work, which enabled him in turn to exert a strong influence on Bruges painting in the sixteenth century.