The greater part of this period is marked by economic prosperity, the growth of cities, and prodigious artistic innovation in the Low Countries. The dukes of Burgundy, who rule there until 1477, are great patrons of the arts; foremost among them is Philip the Good (r. 1419–67), who around 1420 moves his court from Dijon to Lille and then Bruges. Up to this time, metalwork, illuminated manuscripts, and tapestries dominate as the most highly prized art forms, but the early fifteenth century witnesses the emergence of a new art form that is quickly recognized as one of the most remarkable achievements of the period: panel painting. Founded by Robert Campin (1378/79–1444), Jan van Eyck (1390/1400–1441), and Rogier van der Weyden (ca. 1399–1464), Netherlandish painting is praised throughout Europe for its keen observation of detail and its enamel-like surface achieved by built-up layers, or glazes, of oil paint.
Arts in all media flourish: while the church is still a key patron, members of the affluent middle class and prosperous corporate bodies commission tapestries and stained glass, often designed by painters, as well as metalwork, sculpture, and furniture. Printmaking becomes an important art form after 1500; among its greatest practitioners are Lucas van Leyden (1489/94–1533), Maarten van Heemskerck (1498–1574), and Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617). In the latter years of the sixteenth century, however, countless works of art are destroyed as the Low Countries engage in a series of bloody conflicts with Spanish Habsburg rulers. In 1581, the northern provinces become an independent state, known as the States General or the Dutch Republic.
Thomas à Kempis (1380—1471) takes his vows at the Agnietenberg monastery in Deventer, the headquarters of the Brethren of the Common Life and a movement known asdevotio moderna (modern devotion), whose followers teach and care for the poor. Thomas à Kempis is probably the author of De imitatione Christi (Imitation of Christ), a devotional book that encourages readers to picture themselves at biblical events; this work of exceptional resonance shapes private devotion throughout the period.
Utrecht is a major center for illuminated manuscripts, which disseminate the inventions of the great panel painters throughout Europe. The undisputed masterpiece of the Utrecht school is the Hours of Catherine of Cleves (ca. 1435–40; J. Pierpont Morgan Library, New York).
The Flemish port city of Bruges on the Zwin River is a hub for international banking and trade, as well as for the production of woolen goods; it is also a favorite court location of the dukes of Burgundy. Many artists settle there, including Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus (documented 1444–73), Hans Memling (active by 1465–died 1494), and Gerard David (ca. 1455–1523).
Tapestries are among the most prized art objects of the period. They are at first produced on commission, but the demand for them is so great that by the turn of the sixteenth century they are available ready-made at fairs throughout the Low Countries. Brussels is a major production center; Raphael’s tapestry designs for the Acts of the Apostles reach the city by 1516, where they influence the work of painter/designer Bernaert van Orley (active by 1515, died 1542), a proponent of Romanist style.
Tournai painter Robert Campin (1378/79–1444) and an assistant execute The Annunciation Triptych (Merode Triptych) (56.70), a work remarkable for its careful description of the interior setting and minutely observed details.
At the death of John of Bavaria, count of Holland, Jan van Eyck enters the service of Philip the Good as his valet de chambre. He settles in Bruges and carries out diplomatic missions to Spain and Portugal. Aware of van Eyck’s genius, Philip the Good notes in 1435, “we can find no other painter equal to our taste nor so excellent in matters of art and science.”
In an effort to strengthen Burgundian control over the Low Countries, Philip the Good creates the Order of the Golden Fleece, which he bestows on preeminent members of the local nobility.
Jan van Eyck completes the Adoration of the Lamb polyptych (now Cathedral of Saint Bavo, Ghent), commissioned from his brother Hubert van Eyck (died 1426). A work of great size and complexity, the Ghent altarpiece is an outstanding monument of early Netherlandish painting. In the same decade, Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden produce altarpieces of similar scale and complexity.
Rogier van der Weyden leaves Robert Campin’s Tournai workshop and becomes city painter of Brussels. The head of a busy workshop, Rogier receives commissions from French, German, Spanish, and Italian patrons. Contemporary Italian sources call him the world’s second greatest painter, the first being Jan van Eyck.
At the death of Duke Charles the Bold (1433–1477), his daughter Mary of Burgundy becomes regent of the Low Countries (r. 1477–82); the remainder of the duchy of Burgundy is absorbed by France. Mary grants local authorities—the States General—control over the waging of war, currency, and taxation. These rights are documented in a constitution.
Painter Hugo van der Goes (1435/45–1482) abandons his successful workshop in Ghent and enters as a lay brother the Roode Klooster near Brussels, which is affiliated with the devotio moderna movement. Earlier in the decade, he executes a triptych (now at the Uffizi, Florence, Italy) for Tommaso Portinari, a Florentine banker active in Bruges. The central panel of the altarpiece depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds, and includes portraits of Tommaso and his family on the flanking wings. Sent to the Portinari Chapel in Florence (Church of Sant’Egidio, choir of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova) in 1483, this outstanding work reflects the popularity of Netherlandish painting in Italy.
Mary’s husband Maximilian I of Habsburg, archduke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor from 1493 until 1519, becomes ruler of the Low Countries. His use of heavy taxation and brutal military force to recover the institutional and territorial losses since 1477 leads to ten years of revolt and internal warfare.
Bruges’ prominence as Europe’s foremost mercantile center declines as the Zwin River, the city’s link to the Atlantic Ocean, accumulates silt and becomes unnavigable. Responding to rebellion in Bruges, Maximilian orders the relocation of foreign merchants to Antwerp, a port city on the Schelde River. As a result, Antwerp rises in economic prosperity, and in 1531 the first modern stock exchange is established there. A center for printing and book manufacture, the city is also home to a bustling art market and a painter’s guild whose members include Quentin Massys (1466–1530), Joos van Cleve (ca. 1485–1540/41), Joachim Patinir (1475/85–1524), and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569). It is here that a school of painting known as Antwerp Mannerism emerges, combining Italian Renaissance and Northern motifs.
In ‘s Hertogenbosch, near Tilburg, Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1453–1516) uses the triptych format—hitherto reserved for religious images—for haunting, disturbing tableaux. Little is known about the origins, chronology, patrons, and sources of his work. Aside from a handful of biblical scenes, Bosch paints dark allegories of human folly and its consequences. Later in the century, Philip II is particularly enamored of Bosch’s art, and orders his most important works to be shipped to Spain, including his masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights (Museo del Prado, Madrid).
With about 2.4 million inhabitants, the Low Countries are a densely populated, heavily urbanized region. By 1470, 30 percent of Flanders’ population and 31 percent of Brabant’s are city dwellers, while in Holland, the number reaches 45 percent in 1514.
Desiderius Erasmus (ca. 1466–1536), the foremost Northern humanist, settles in the university town of Leuven. A correspondent with all the major minds of his time, Erasmus advocates a philological study of the Scriptures. Although believing in the necessity of church reform, he questions both Luther’s doctrine of predestination and papal authority. In a life of travel that takes him all over Europe, he authors many educational writings, the most famous of which is The Praise of Folly. His edition of the New Testament in Greek and Latin, published in 1516, serves as the basis for Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German.
At the death of Philip I, duke of Burgundy (from 1482) and king of Castile (1504–06), rule of the Burgundian Netherlands passes to his son Charles (1500–1558), who later accedes to the throne of Spain (1516) as Charles I, and becomes Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1519. Seldom in the Low Countries, Charles appoints as regents his aunt Margaret of Austria (r. 1507–30) and sister Mary of Hungary (r. 1530–56). At this time, Brussels is the de facto capital of the Low Countries, and Bernaert van Orley, a native of Brussels, is court painter to both Margaret and Mary.
Painter Jan Gossart (ca. 1478–1536) visits Italy with the embassy of Philip of Burgundy, illegitimate son of Philip the Good, and is among the earliest artists to introduce Italian Renaissance motifs into the Low Countries. Jan van Scorel (1495–1562) soon follows: during his stay from 1519 to 1524, he is influenced by the works of Raphael and Michelangelo. Maarten van Heemskerck visits Italy thirteen years later; a penetrating portrait of his father (MMA 71.36) dates to several years before his departure.
Albrecht Dürer attends Charles V’s coronation at Aachen (1520) and travels through the Low Countries. In his diary, he records his admiration for Rogier van der Weyden’s Examples of Justice in the Brussels town hall, considered Rogier’s masterpiece during his lifetime (no longer extant). Dürer sees “precious pictures” by Rogier and Hugo van der Goes in Bruges, and an altarpiece by Jan Gossart in Middelburg. Of the Adoration of the Lamb polyptych in Ghent, Dürer writes, “Then I saw Jan van Eyck’s painting; it is a most precious painting, fully of thought, and the Eve, Mary, and God the Father are especially good.”
Glass painter Dirck Crabeth (active 1540–74) executes ten monumental windows for the Church of Saint John in Gouda, the most extensive ensemble of Netherlandish glass to have survived. William of Orange is the commissioner of some of the windows.
Charles V abdicates in favor of his son, Philip II (r. 1556–98), and Philip’s illegitimate daughter, Margaret of Parma (r. 1559–96) becomes regent of the Low Countries. Like his aunt, Mary of Hungary, Philip develops a taste for Netherlandish painting. Under his rule, a string of masterpieces, including paintings by Rogier van der Weyden, Dieric (Dirk) Bouts (active by 1457, died 1475), Joachim Patinir, and especially Hieronymus Bosch, are shipped to Spain, where they are hung in the Escorial, Philip’s palace outside Madrid.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (active by 1551, died 1569) is an outstanding genre painter and graphic artist of the period. His depictions of peasant life—often expressing a moral or providing satirical commentary on folly and vice—are reflections not only of a climate in which religious imagery is increasingly suppressed in favor of secular or didactic subjects, but also of his own humanist interests.
Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is published in a Dutch translation. Calvinism rapidly appeals to the Netherlandish middle classes because it glorifies work and marks a defiant attitude toward Catholic Spanish rule.
Violent outbreaks of iconoclasm sweep through the Low Countries as the Reformation gains momentum. Within several days, the furnishings of Antwerp Cathedral are destroyed, churches throughout the Netherlands—particularly in the north—are sacked, and countless artworks destroyed. The riots occur in the wake of Philip II’s accession to the throne; a staunchly Catholic monarch, Philip brings the Inquisition to the Netherlands.
In response to iconoclasm, Philip II names Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, count of Alba, governor of the Low Countries. Alba’s regime of terror triggers the Dutch struggle for independence in a series of wars, led principally by William I the Silent, prince of Orange (1533–1584). With the help of naval supporters known as “Sea Beggars,” the rebels successfully take control of most northern towns by 1572. In July of that year, the states of Holland gathered at Dordrecht proclaim William the Silent stadtholder of Holland and Zeeland. Recognizing that the Calvinists have been the driving force behind the rebellion, the prince converts to the new faith. In 1579, the northern provinces and some southern territories form the Union of Utrecht. They declare independence from Spain in 1581, and are known internationally as the Dutch Republic or the States General. The Catholic south remains under Habsburg rule until 1795.
Painter and historiographer Karel van Mander I (1548–1606) settles in Haarlem. Emulating the Carracci Academy in Bologna, he founds, together with Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem (1562–1638) and Hendrick Goltzius, the Haarlem Academy in 1587, to afford artists the opportunity to draw from live models.
Hendrick Goltzius, who designs nearly 300 engravings during his career, issues six monumental engravings with scenes from the life of the Virgin. Known as his Meisterstiche (master prints), they reveal his protean mastery of graphic styles. Each print is done in the manner of another artist: Raphael, Parmigianino, Jacopo Bassano, Federico Barocci, Lucas van Leyden, and Albrecht Dürer.
Adriaen de Vries (1545/46–1626), Holland’s preeminent Mannerist sculptor and a student of Giambologna in Florence, creates his masterwork, the Hercules Fountain in Augsburg—an Italianate work of monumental dimensions—for the city’s 1600 festival.
“Low Countries, 1400–1600 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=08®ion=euwl (October 2002)