This altarpiece is an example of late 15th-century Flemish painting. It is executed on three hinged-panels, called a triptych, which can be folded to enclose the inner painted scenes. The painting illustrates the tendency of Northern Renaissance artists to humanize religious scenes by placing them in contemporary settings.
FLANDERS IN THE 15TH CENTURY
The most important city in Flanders (modern-day Belgium) in the 15th century was Bruges, which derived its wealth from the weaving industry and from banking. A channel of the North Sea once reached inland to Bruges, bringing ships with raw wool from England that was used to weave the woolen cloth for which Flanders was famous throughout Europe. This industry contributed to the rise of a prosperous middle class. Their wealth made possible the construction of civic and religious buildings for which they commissioned works of art.
Flanders was ruled at this time by the dukes of Burgundy (cousins of the French kings). The annexation of the Low Countries had come about through the intermarriage of the dukes with the House of Flanders. They made Bruges their capital, and patronized the arts by commissioning illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, and furniture for their castles. Their taste for the specific and the tangible details of the visible world greatly influenced the development of 15th-century Flemish painting.
Flanders and the city of Bruges in particular, reached their height economically and artistically under the rule of Charles the Bold, the last duke of Burgundy. His death in 1477 was followed by a gradual decline in Flemish power and its eventual annexation to Spain and the House of Hapsburg in the 16th century. The economy of Bruges likewise declined due to the gradual silting up of its North Sea channel. By the end of the century, Antwerp had replaced Bruges as the economic and artistic center of the region.
PAINTING DURING THE RENAISSANCE
Revolutionary changes in painting occurred simultaneously in northern and southern Europe at the beginning of the 15th century. However, the development in each region was very different. The Italians sought to discover what had made Rome a great civilization by studying antiquity. A humanistic attitude developed that focused on life on earth and the role of the individual. Italian artists scientifically explored the structure beneath the outer appearance of their subjects through mathematical perspective and proportions, the study of anatomy and the mechanics of bodily motion, and by close observation of the world around them. While humanists accepted the existence of God, they were a society more interested in worldly matters.
In contrast to the ancient Roman ruins of Italy, the northern monuments were Gothic cathedrals. The tradition out of which Flemish painting grew was not antiquity but rather the late Gothic or International Style.1 Flemish artists were more interested in rendering the surface appearances of their subjects than their underlying structure. Their approach was to give a faithful representation of reality by adding detail upon detail until the painting mirrored the visible world. This was because Flemish people had a reverential attitude toward the visible world. They made no differentiation between that which was sacred and that which was secular. Because everything in God's eye was sacred, all details of ordinary life were raised to the sacred in paintings, and likewise, all that was sacred became commonplace.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF FLEMISH PAINTING
Flemish panel paintings first appeared about 1400. Their precursors were stained glass and miniature manuscript illuminations. The miniature paintings in religious manuscripts were made by the monks during the Middle Ages. However, with the patronage of the court and the rising prosperity of the middle class, Bruges and other Flemish cities attracted many artists to the area. By the 14th century, miniature painting was the vocation of artists who worked for the nobles and princes. A powerful guild system developed that produced local "schools" of art that prospered throughout much of the 15th century.
The illuminated manuscripts produced for the dukes of Burgundy toward the end of the 14th century were characterized by an intense interest in the actual world of appearances meticulously rendered with minute detail, brilliant color, enamel-like surfaces, and flat decorative patterns. Also evident in these works was an attention to everyday activities of life, specific times of year, and the natural world, giving prominence to the secular within a sacred text. These characteristics were translated on a larger scale to altarpieces by the masters of the 15th century like Robert Campin, the van Eycks, and Rogier van der Weyden.
By the late 15th century, the great flourishing of Flemish painting was already declining. Individual masters were replaced by guild workers, and the middle class replaced the nobles as patrons. Originality and innovation gave way to imitation. Artists, like the
Master of St. Lucy Legend, broke no new ground, but turned instead to an eclectic approach. They combined elements of different altarpieces of the masters in a variety of ways. Rather than seeking to elicit piety or religious fervor, the later altarpieces were designed to please their patrons. Artists flattered the civic pride of their clients by rendering local landmarks in great detail, like the Bruges cityscape in the background of this altarpiece.
FLEMISH NATURALISM AND SYMBOLISM
It is safe to assume that everything in a Flemish painting has significance. Behind what we might interpret as the trappings of everyday life lies symbolic meaning. For example, the violets at the feet of Christ and John the Baptist in the left panel of the MIA altarpiece symbolize humility because they grow close to the ground. Dandelions are one of the bitter herbs mentioned in the book of Exodus, a common Christian symbol of grief, death, and resurrection. Together they suggest a link between Christ and John the Baptist. While many of the symbols in Flemish painting derive from Christian iconography, many are invented by contemporary artists or derive from legends. This saturation of all elements with meaning resulted in what has been called disguised symbolism
Flemish realism, realized through endless detail, is even more tangible than Italian realism achieved through a scientific approach. This vision of a serene natural beauty in the service of religion led Flemish artists to amplify the qualities of beauty inherent in even the most insignificant objects. The soft textures of hair, the glitter of gold in the heavy brocades, the luster of pearls, the flashing of gems were all painted with tireless fidelity to appearance. The symbolic content of the Gothic image is made more visual in an attempt to represent the truths of the Christian religion in their most tangible and accessible form. The Flemish artists' predisposition to naturalism and disguised symbolism embodied in the ordinary objects of everyday life had its basis in the nominalist philosophy of the time. Nominalists considered the physical world the key to knowing reality. In their view, reality exists in individual objects and persons, which are directly perceived by the senses. (This view is in contrast to the platonic idea that reality is only in the mind of God and thus expressed through ideas.) If one embraced nominalism, it was logical to reason that it was not only important to closely observe the physical nature of things in the world but also to render them accurately in painting. The nominalist philosophy was given further support by the Flemish theologian, Nicholas of Cusa, who exalted sight to divine status. He asserted that because everything in the world is in God's sight, God is present in everything that exists, no matter how insignificant. This led to the belief that faithful reproduction of the visible world was akin to an act of worship, and that the resulting painting was a mirror of the divine.
CENTRAL PANEL OF THE TRIPTYCH
The central panel of the triptych combines two scenes of Christian iconography that were traditionally used to depict the mourners of Christ with his dead body after its removal from the cross. The first of these traditions is shown at the center, where the weeping Virgin Mary holds the dead Christ in her lap. This motif derives from a sculptural form first witnessed in Germany around 1300. Called a pietà
, the Latin word for piety, the image was originally intended to stimulate reverence among the worshippers. A pietà
typically is limited to the figures of Mary and Christ. (We have an example of a sculpted wooden pietà
in our collection that is sometimes on view.)
The presence of several other figures around Mary and Christ in this scene, suggest the influence of the second tradition, known as a lamentation scene. In Christian iconography, persons traditionally included in a lamentation scene besides the Virgin and Christ are St. John the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene, and Joseph of Arimathea. On occasion, Nicodemus, who provided the unguents to anoint the body, and one or more holy women like Mary, the mother of Joseph of Arimathea, are also included.
In the central panel (unlike the side panels) no attributes are included with the figures, so positive identification of any individuals other than the Virgin and Christ is problematic.
However, we have identified the man supporting the head of Christ as Joseph of Arimathea on the basis of his sumptuous garments. According to biblical accounts, Joseph was a wealthy individual who gave his own tomb for the body of Christ. Furthermore, it is likely that the male figure in yellow on the Virgin's right is St. John the Evangelist, because we know that he was present at the crucifixion and is always included in lamentation scenes. As here, he is usually shown as young and beardless and providing comfort to the grieving Virgin. The woman on the Virgin's left with long flowing hair and dressed in contemporary Flemish fashion is probably Mary Magdalene, who is also usually present in lamentation pictures. The man on the extreme right may be Nicodemus and the woman on the left in the red robes could be Mary, the mother of Joseph of Arimathea.2 A theory has also been proposed asserting that the two figures on the far right (the man the woman previously identified as Mary Magdalene) are the donors. Their contemporary Flemish garments supports this idea. However, while not impossible, it would be unusual to find donors represented in the central panel of a triptych. Donors were more typically portrayed in the side panels, often kneeling and sometimes in smaller scale than the holy figures.3
Some of the facial types of the figures suggest Spanish or Asian influence. It is possible that the artist chose models from the great variety of different nationalities of people drawn to Bruges at that time. It is possible also that the figures conform to a conventional ideal of beauty of the age.4
The holy scene is set before an accurate and detailed view of the architecture of Bruges in the late 15th century, bringing the event closer to the everyday lives of the worshippers. In fact, the details of the cityscape are so precise that we are able to date the painting by the octagonal stage of the belfry of a commercial building that was being restored following a fire. The other notable landmark is the tall spire of the Church of Notre Dame. Both structures still exist and look remarkably similar today. If one has the energy to climb the 356 steps of the belfry, you will be rewarded by a wonderful view of the city of Bruges and the immediate countryside. Although the architecture of Bruges is accurately recorded, the artist has taken license with the natural landscape. Bruges is not a coastal city, nor is it mountainous. At one time, Bruges had access to the sea through the river Zwin, but the river was silted up by the year 1490, cutting off access to the sea. However, even before that time the fantastic landscape of vast water, hills and distant rocky mountains, typical of this artist, was completely unlike the flat terrain of Bruges.
It is obvious that the artist was partial to decorative elements. Great pains have been taken to give the scene a real life setting, making it more relevant to the Flemish people. This is evidenced by the contemporary clothing of several of the figures. Likewise, instead of the traditional blue and red costume, the Virgin wears the blue and white habit of a nun. The figures occupy an idyllic landscape, where every leaf and flower has been carefully trimmed, and swans swim on the pond before the fairy-tale castles of the city. Yet there is no mistaking that this is a scene of religious importance. Stylistically, the solidity of the figures, the close observation of nature (including contemporary Bruges), the possible inclusion of donor portraits, and the realistic attention given to the appearance of Christ's body suggests the influence of the Italian Renaissance. But these characteristics are blended with the traditions of the Late Gothic style. The figures are somewhat elongated (imagine if Christ were standing up), they are stiff and angular, and their faces are not individualized. The figures are placed close to the picture plane in a shallow foreground space, and the background is treated rather like a two-dimensional curtain drop. Depth is indicated by the diminishing size of things in the distance (although notice how large the swans are), the overlapping of figures, and the separate delineation of a foreground, middle ground, and background space by color without a logical transition.
Greater attention is given to the surface detail of the costumes and hair than to the actual anatomy of the figures. While considerable attention is given to the details of Christ's pale skin, rolled-up eyes, and open mouth, there is little attempt to portray accurate anatomy. Rather, the purpose is to create a pious image of suffering as a meditative device.
The figure depicted in the left panel of the triptych is John the Baptist, son of the Virgin Mary's cousin Elizabeth. He is considered to be the forerunner of Christ, as the last in the line of Old Testament prophets and the first of the saints of the New Testament. Although the most common attribute of John the Baptist is a lamb, he may be identified in this panel by his index finger that points to Christ. [John looked toward Jesus and said, "There is the Lamb of God." John:1-36.] In Matthew 3:4, John is also described as being "clothed with camel's hair and a girdle of skin about his loins." In our panel, he appears as a barefoot ascetic garbed in animal skin under a cloth cloak.
In the right panel is St. Catherine who, according to legend, was born in the 3rd century at Alexandria in Egypt, possibly of royal blood. St. Catherine was famous for her beauty and learning. After her baptism, Christ appeared to her in a dream and took her as his celestial spouse. She remained a devout Christian throughout her life. The Roman emperor Maxentius, whose capital was at Alexandria, launched a massive persecution of all Christians. Catherine preached her faith so convincingly that Maxentius gathered a group of philosophers to refute her teaching. Instead, she converted them. Enraged, the emperor imprisoned her and attempted to starve her into submission. When that failed, he proposed marriage, but she refused. He then ordered her to be bound between four wheels rimmed with spikes and torn to death, but a flame from heaven destroyed the wheel. Finally, Catherine was beheaded. St. Catherine was one of the most frequently depicted saints during the Renaissance. She is identified in the panel by her attributes:
- the spiked wheel that is at the lower edge of her skirt
- the crown that signifies her royalty
- the sword in her right hand that is the symbol of her martyrdom
- the book in her left hand refers to her learning
It is possible that St. Catherine appears on this altarpiece because she was the patron saint of the donor. However, the Master of the St. Lucy Legend also included her image on other altarpieces. Her symbolic importance and general popularity would certainly have warranted her inclusion during this period. (In the MIA's sculpture, 20.11, Catherine appears victorious standing upon the body of Emperor Maxentius.)
The exterior of the triptych is painted in grisaille (literally "grey") to simulate unpainted stone sculpture. Grisaille figures demonstrate the virtuosity of the artist and were a standard feature of triptychs after 1410. The exterior scene of this triptych represents the Annunciation (the angel Gabriel is on one panel and the Virgin Mary on the other). The side panels of the triptych remained closed over the interior paintings under normal circumstances. On special occasions, like saints' days, the altarpiece was opened to display the bright, colorful panels in the otherwise dark chapel.
The brilliancy of color and enamel-like surfaces of Northern Renaissance painting of the 15th century is largely due to the development of oil paint. Although oil paint was available as early as the middle ages, oil painting techniques were not used and perfected in panel painting until the early years of the 15th century. The use of oil paint facilitated a wider range of hues. The layering of translucent glazes of color allowed light to pass through and be reflected by opaque underlayers, lending a greater sense of luminosity to the paintings. This altarpiece is painted with a combination of oil and tempera (59% oil), which was a common practice at the time. Some artists of this period liked the jewel-like beading that resulted from painting tempera over oil. This effect can be seen on the foliage. Because of the presence of tempera, this painting has less of the brilliance and luminosity of a work painted completely with oil paint.
Altarpieces were not usually signed by the artist in the 15th century,
so the actual name of the artist who painted this triptych is unknown. However, this painting has been stylistically identified with a group of three paintings depicting the life of St. Lucy that were executed for the Church of St. Jacques in Bruges. Consequently, the artist is known as the Master of the Saint Lucy Legend.
An identifiable feature of the work of the Master of the Saint Lucy Legend is the cityscape of Bruges, which he included in many of his works. Other hallmarks of this particular artist's work are a close observation of the natural world as evidenced by his attention to the foliage of the foreground and the garden-like display of the middle ground, and a pleasing decorative sense.
Use on the following tours:
- European Masterpieces of Art (14th to 18th centuries)
- Spirituality and Art
- People and Places (for the contemporary costumes and view of Bruges)
- Visual Choices
- Music and Art
Compare the minute details of objects and the disguised symbolism in this painting with that found in the d'Ancona, the Claesz, or the Madonna and Child by the Master of the Embroidered Foliage.
Compare this example of Northern Renaissance painting with the Portrait of a Cardinal in His Study, attributed to Costa, as an example of Italian Renaissance painting.
Compare this triptych to the 20th-century painting by Beckmann or to the earlier altarpiece by Daddi. What appeal did the format have originally? Why would it continue to be used in this century?
- In painting and sculpture, a fairly homogeneous style predominated in Europe from about1400-1420, which combined Italian and Northern European styles. It was characterized by a close observation of the world, a humanizing of religious subjects with secular elements, and meticulous attention to detail. In Italy, the Renaissance replaced it. In the north, the traditions of panel painting grew out of it.
- The attribute of St. John the Evangelist is the eagle; Mary Magdalene's attribute is a vessel containing oil of myrrh with which she anointed Christ's feet; Nicodemus' attribute is a jar of spices which he provided for the anointing of Christ's body in preparation for burial.
- If these figures do in fact represent donors, then it is possible that Mary Magdalene is the woman in the red robe on the right next to St. John.
- Suggested by Michael Stoughton in lecture to MIA docents.