Art in Flanders during the 15th century

Generally speaking, Europe (or at least most of the European countries with the exception, in some aspects, of Italy) was during the course of two centuries essentially “Gothic” under the influence of French styles. But since the end of the 13th century or the beginning of the 14th, artists grew more and more interested in the study of the natural forms, which implied realism that little by little became more perceptible and apparent in artworks. This artistic trend was apparent in both France and the Germanic countries with the spread of the new pictorial wave of the international Gothic style at the beginning of the 15th century. Meanwhile in Italy, all these processes ultimately led to a momentous change: the Renaissance explosion.

The Portinari Altarpiece or Portinari Triptych, ca. 1475, oil on wood, by Hugo van der Goes (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The triptych represents the Adoration of the Shepherds. The painting was commissioned for the church of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence by the Italian banker Tommaso Portinari, who was depicted on the left panel kneeling with his two sons Antonio and Pigello; his wife Maria di Francesco Baroncelli was portrayed on the right panel also kneeling with their daughter Margarita. All, except Pigello, are accompanied by their patron saints: Saint Thomas (with the spear, left panel), Saint Anthony (with the bell, left panel), Mary Magdalen (with the pot of ointment, right panel) and Saint Margaret (with the book and the dragon, right panel). In the central panel, three shepherds fall to their knees before the child Jesus. Kneeling angels surround the Virgin and the Child, who is not in a crib but lies on the ground surrounded by an aureole of golden rays. In each of the panels, van der Goes painted in the background scenes related to the main subject: on the left panel, we can see Joseph and Mary on the road to Bethlehem; on the central panel (to the right), the shepherds visited by the angel; and on the right panel, the Three Magi on the road to Bethlehem. This painting was deeply admired by the Italian artists of the time.

As the 15th century progressed, that phenomenon of transformation accelerated. While the flamboyant architectural style triumphed especially in the northern regions of France and above all in the southern regions of the Lower Countries, the Renaissance ideas finally flew into Florence in a completely new environment: in architectural terms with the innovations brought by Brunelleschi, and in sculpture and painting with the no less radical changes brought by Donatello and Masaccio. That was the time when painting and sculpture acquired full personality in Burgundy (a historical territory of east-central France) and Flanders (the Flemish Region of current Belgium, with Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent as its most important cities).

All these events revealed a new human activity, a new and unexpected mental attitude of humanity. From this point of view the 15th century was one of the most transcendental in history, precisely for this spiritual rebellion adopted by the individual and that denoted the abandonment of medieval norms based on a total submission to theological truths and Scholastic Logic, which until then had dominated the entire ideology of the second half of the Middle Ages. The malice of that 15th century consisted, precisely, in that it wasn’t a century that appeared to be revolutionary by a whim, but in its ways of rebellious expression simulated wanting to continue within the traditional ways. And it is under that “flaming” (flamboyant) style, under that explosion of baroquism within the ogival forms that the true enemy of the Gothic and medieval hid: Humanism.

Portrait of a Carthusian, 1446, oil on wood, by Petrus Christus (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). This portrait evidences the huge influence of the painting of Jan Van Eyck. The friar is placed in the corner of a warmly illuminated room. The realism of the scene is enhanced by the fly resting momentarily on the fictive frame. Christus became the most important painter of Bruges after the death of Jan van Eyck in 1441. Christus placed the subjects of his portraits in believable spaces, contrary to Van Eyck’s neutral and flat backgrounds. The painted inscription at the bottom reads: “Petrus Christus made me in the year 1446.”
A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449, oil on oak panel, by Petrus Christus (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). This painting reflects the meticulous attention to detail as seen in the jewels, glass, and metallic objects, highlighting the virtuosity of the goldsmith. The main figure was identified as Saint Eligius (the patron saint of goldsmiths) due to the presence of a halo, which was recognized as a later addition and subsequently removed. The panel is likely a vocational painting, which portrays the profession of goldsmithing and perhaps it refers to the portrait of an existing person. The couple depicted is buying a wedding ring that is being weighed on a scale. The girdle on the left that extends over the ledge of the shop into the viewer’s space is a further allusion to matrimony. The convex mirror (lower right corner), which links the interior space of the goldsmith’s shop to the street outside, reflects two young men with a falcon (a symbol of pride and greed) and establishes a moral comparison between the imperfect world of the viewer and the world of virtue and balance that is trying to be represented in the painting.

In the Lower Countries and France these trends were less evident and eccentric than in Italy. However, during the first half of the 15th century, but particularly around the middle of it, intellectuals and statesmen in France and Burgundy seem not to recognize more laws than those resulting from their limitations as human beings. Their only true lord was Death. In Italy, this psychological and moral change was more evident because there it tried to emulate the classical antiquity and also because there local patriotism became one with raising humanist tendencies.

Within this environment, in the Lower Countries appeared a series of great artists who, at first glance, seem not to participate in the phenomenon of contemporary transformation that was so boldly represented by the Italian Renaissance. However, the direction that sculpture and painting took in the Lower Countries wasn’t opposite to the direction that art had taken in Florence. This explains how both artistic foci, the Flemish and the Florentine, could coexist together without any conflict.

A proof of this is the triptych that in 1476 the painter Hugo van der Goes finished in Flanders for the Florentine citizen Tommaso Portinari established in Bruges as a representative of the commercial and banking house of the Medici. This Italian banker quickly sent van der Goes’ painting to his homeland Florence to be offered to the church of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. Not only did this painting denote a sensitivity and even a style related to qualities proper to Domenico Ghirlandaio, but when it was admired in Florence by artists such as Filippo Lippi and even by his young disciple Botticelli, it influenced a good number of Florentine painters. But even before this painting by van der Goes we can find examples of these direct contacts between Flemish and Tuscan art.

Portrait of a Young Woman, ca. 1470, oil on oak wood, by Petrus Christus (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). This small painting (29 cm × 22.5 cm) marks a major stylistic advance in contemporary portraiture; the girl occupies an airy, three-dimensional, realistic setting (maybe a space inside her home?), and stares out at the viewer with a complicated expression that is reserved, yet intelligent and alert. It is widely regarded as one of the most exquisite portraits of the Northern Renaissance. In this painting Christus shows influences of both Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, and was highly influential in the decades after its completion. Light comes from the left, creating shadows against the back wall, the strongest cast by the girl’s hennin*. The girl reflects the Gothic ideal of female beauty with elongated facial features, narrow shoulders, tightly pinned hair and an unnaturally long forehead, achieved through tightly pulled-back hair which has been plucked at the top. She is also dressed in expensive clothing and jewelry. The girl portrayed was probably a member of the leading English family, the Talbots, then headed by the Earl of Shrewsbury.
Lamentation, ca. 1455–1460, oil on wood, by Petrus Christus (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels). The Lamentation is one of the few large-scale works made by Petrus Christus. This painting shows a strong influence of the style of Rogier van der Weyden. The main figures clearly resemble the central figures in Van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross in the Prado Museum in Madrid. However, the sense of drama of Van der Weyden’s painting is replaced here by serenity and contemplation. Compared with Van der Weyden’s Lamentation, we notice that here more figures are depicted: Mary Magdalene (left, sitting), Joseph of Arimathea (holding the holy shroud), Mary and her two eponymous sisters (one trying to lift Mary, the other in the far right talking to the bald character), John the Evangelist (in brown, holding Mary’s left arm), Christ’s dead body, Nicodemus (in red robes, right), and a difficult to identify shaven-headed person in the right hand background. In front, on the rocky ground, we can see Mary Magdalene’s pot of ointment. Also present are the hammer and pincers used in the descent, and the three nails with which Christ was nailed to the cross according to the pictorial tradition. Under the cross lies the customary skull of Mount Calvary (to the left). The scene is placed in front of a wide landscape, at the back of which the biblical Jerusalem is depicted in the shape of a late medieval Flemish city.

A year before Van der Goes finished his triptych, Antonello da Messina arrived in Venice where he contributed, together with the technique of oil painting as Jan van Eyck had practiced it, a new concept of space and of psychological depth which would give rise to the great development of portraiture in the Venetian school, and in turn Antonello practiced both techniques thanks to having being influenced by Petrus Christus, a Flemish painter direct disciple of Van Eyck, during Antonello’s stay in Milan in the court of Galeazzo Maria Sforza.

The beginnings of this Flemish primitive painting can be explained in the art of both France and the Rhine region. That the best part of France’s artistic force was to concentrate in the Lower Countries can be explained without great difficulty. Burgundy, one of the feudal tributaries of the crown of France, joined the Lower Countries by the way of the marriage of the heiress of the counts of Flanders (Margaret III Countess of Flanders) with the new Duke of Burgundy, named Philip the Bold, son of the king of France John the Good (John II of France).

Thus, the pleasant valleys extending between the Rhone and the Loire forming Burgundy and the Lower Countries had the same princes. But in addition, the first Duke of Burgundy turned out to be the brother of both the King of France and of John, Duke of Berry both extremely fond of art. Thus the monarch reining over France at the end of the 14th century (Charles V, the Wise), the bibliophile and dilettante Duke of Berry (for whom the Limbourg brothers made their wonderful Books of Hours), and the Duke of Burgundy (married to the Countess of Flanders) were all siblings and all three were fond of books, paintings and beautiful architectures.

Above, view of the the portal of the monastery church at the Charterhouse of Champmol (Dijon, France) from around 1389-1406, by Claus Sluter and workshop. The Champmol monastery was designed as a showpiece, and its artistic contents represent much of the finest monumental work of French and Burgundian art of the period.  In the center (above and below) the mullion has a sculpture of the Virgin carrying baby Jesus. The Virgin was harmoniously carved in contrapposto, in her right hand there was once a scepter. The jambs bear figures of a kind never seen before in a chapel’s or church’s portal. Depicted life-size, kneeling, and turned toward the Virgin in prayer, are, on the left jamb, Philip the Bold, the powerful Duke of Burgundy (also below, left), and opposite him his wife, Margaret of Flanders (below, right), escorted by their patrons, St John and St Catherine respectively. The facial features of the couple, the monastery’s founders, are recognizable portraits. Never before had living people been portrayed on the portal of a sacred building (and so realistically), in a position that was properly reserved for holy figures from the Bible and for saints and martyrs from the history of Christianity. The naturalistic portrayal of these sculptures marked an epoch-making change in the sculptural treatment of human beings: the fact that such realism penetrated the sacred sphere was of such far-reaching significance that this monument has been called the “first great monument of early Renaissance art” north of the Alps.

The Champmol Charterhouse in 1686. The Well of Moses is in the middle of the cloister (print after a drawing by the architect and dramatist Alexis Piron, Municipal Library of Dijon, France). The monastery was intended to provide a dynastic burial place for the Valois Dukes of Burgundy, and operated until it was dissolved in 1791 during the French Revolution.

The Dukes of Burgundy spent most of their time in their court of Dijon, or at their residence in Hesdin, in the current department of the Pas-de-Calais, rather than in Brussels. The first work commissioned by the Dukes of Burgundy in Dijon was a convent for the Carthusian friars, in which they built their graves. The place chosen for this purpose was the neighboring Champmol meadow, located at two crossbow shots from the city gates. The works of the Champmol Charterhouse begun in 1383, and the work on its sculptures and decoration continued well into the 15th century. Today it is in ruins, but its door remains intact and were decorated with the statues of the Dukes of Burgundy and their patron saints in the act of worshiping the Virgin. These famous sculptures were the work of an artist from the Lower Countries named Claus Sluter, born in Haarlem. Sluter entered under the service of the Duke of Burgundy in 1385 and didn’t move from Dijon, where he died in 1406. After finishing the sculpture of the facade, he undertook the execution of the Calvary, which occupied the center of the cloister and from which there isn’t any remains left but its base, known today as the Well of Moses. This stand currently looks like a well, and originally supported the sculptures of the Crucifixion with Mary and Christ. The Calvary has disappeared, there is nothing left but its hexagonal pedestal decorated with sculptures of angels and prophets. Of these, the most popular of all is Moses, who has given the well its name. At his side is David, crowned and in thoughtful attitude, then are Isaiah, Zechariah, Daniel and Jeremiah, each with his peculiar expression.

The Well of Moses (Centre Hospitalier La Chartreuse, Dijon, France) is a monumental sculpture recognized as the masterpiece of Claus Sluter, assisted by his nephew Claus de Werve and his workshop, and carved between 1395–1403 for the Champmol Charterhouse. The work was executed for Philip the Bold in a style combining the International Gothic with northern realism. This monumental ensemble sculpture consisted of a large crucifixion scene or “Calvary”, with a tall slender cross placed atop a hexagonal base carved with the figures of the six prophets who had foreseen the death of Christ on the Cross (see above, namely Moses-top left, David and Jeremiah-top center, Zachariah-top right, Daniel-bottom left, and Isaiah-bottom right). Standing on slender colonnettes on the corners between these prophets are six weeping angels. All the figures, including the lost Calvary group, were painted and gilded by Jean Malouel (see below), and some of this paint still remains. By studying old archives and examining the fixing-points on top of the base, it is believed that the Calvary included only the figure of Mary Magdalene, embracing the foot of the Cross with Christ. The structure originally consisted of four elements: the well itself around four meters deep, the hexagonal pier, sunk in the center of the well (adorned with the prophets and angels), a terrace measuring 2.8 meters across sitting atop the pillar, and the cross which rose from the center. The structure was originally situated in the central courtyard of the main cloister. The well was damaged both by the water and in 1791 during the French Revolution. Of the Crucifixion sculpture only fragments survive, including the head and torso of Christ, now housed in the Musée Archéologique in Dijon.

Sluter’s nephew (Claus de Werve) finished carving the dukes’ tomb with the help of Jean de Marville. These Burgundian burials were in the form of a sarcophagus with recumbent effigies. The marble urn was decorated with figurines of hooded characters, relatives and servants who accompanied the coffin in the funeral procession (collectively known as pleurants*). The famous tomb of Philippe Pot (today in the Louvre) elaborates on this theme of the hooded procession in tears until making an almost theatrical construction of exceptional artistry. The hooded men (or pleurants), in fact, have escaped the relief and are here large polychrome and exempt sculptures of almost natural size. This monument of the late 15th century has been attributed to Antoine Le Moiturier, the last of the Flemish-Burgundian sculptors that employed Claus Sluter’s ways until the Renaissance.

The Tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy (“Salle de Garde”, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, Dijon, Bourgogne, France), originally placed in the Champmol Charterhouse. Only two monuments were ever erected in this projected royal mausoleum (above), both tombs show the same style with painted alabaster reclining effigies with lions at their feet and angels with spread wings at their heads holding cushions. Underneath the slab where the effigies are placed, unpainted small “pleurants” or mourners were set among Gothic tracery.
Philip the Bold planned a single burial monument for himself, and commissioned Jean de Marville in 1381 to execute the works. Work on the tomb begun in 1384 and proceeded slowly, with Claus Sluter being put in charge in 1389. When the Duke died in 1404, only two mourners and the framework were complete; John the Fearless (son of Philip the Bold) gave Sluter four years to finish the job, but he died after two. His nephew and assistant, Claus de Werve took over and finished the sculptures in 1410. The effigies were painted by Jean Malouel. This Tomb of Philip the Bold influenced other similar monuments: Jean, Duke of Berry commissioned a similar work for his own burial, and it inspired the well known Mourners of Dijon, carved a generation later.

The “Pleurants” or mourners from the tomb of Philip the Bold include 41 figures standing in pairs below Gothic niches, and arranged in a mourning procession.
John the Fearless wanted his own tomb accompanied by that of his wife the Duchess Margaret of Bavaria. He also wanted it to resemble the tomb of his father Philip the Bold (see pictures above). The work begun in 1435 well after his death (in 1419), it was made by Claus de Werve who died in 1439 without having managed to find suitable alabaster. In 1443 a Spaniard, Juan de La Huerta, was hired and sent drawings for the effigies. He completed most elements, but not the effigies, before leaving Dijon in 1456. Another master was brought in, and the monument was finally installed in 1470, by which time Philip the Good (son of Philip the Bold) was himself dead. This tomb repeats the design of Philip’s tomb (see above).
The Tomb of Philippe Pot, ca. 1477-1480, polychromed limestone, paint, gold and lead (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This funerary monument was commissioned by Philippe Pot (died 1493), Philip the Bold’s godson and the royal steward and Grand Seneschal of Burgundy under Louis XI, to be placed at the chapel of Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Cîteaux Abbey, south of Dijon (France). Although there is no 100% certainty about who was the artist(s) who created the work, Antoine Le Moiturier is often believed to have produced the eight mourners. This monument includes eight near life-sized pleurants carrying Philippe’s recumbent effigy towards his grave. Philippe was represented dressed in his armor and a heraldic tunic, with his hands folded in prayer and his head resting on a cushion. A sword lies to his side while a lion rests at his feet. The burial of Philippe Pot follows the style established by Claus Sluter in the tomb of Philip the Bold, almost one century before (see pictures above), with pleurants positioned surrounding the effigy.
The almost life-size mourners of the Tomb of Philippe Pot are carved in black stone, and dressed in full-length black-hooded habits. Each figure bows their head in grief, and each bears an individually designed gilded heraldic shield, which may refer to Philippe’s lineage. Their poise gives the impression of the slow movement of a funeral procession. For this funerary monument, the sculptor transformed the conventional size and placement of pleurants (see pictures of the tomb of Philip the Bold above), which used to be relatively small figures standing in Gothic niches below or around the sarcophagus, to make them here almost individual exempted sculptures of near life-size. Below, a close-up image of one of the pleurants’ face from the Tomb of Philippe Pot.

We know that there were other non-French artists in Dijon who worked for the court of the Dukes of Burgundy, for example Italians and Spaniards (such as the Aragonese sculptor Juan de la Huerta a native of Daroca). Above all, in Dijon worked Flemish painters such as Jean Malouel (or Malwel) of Limburg, an exquisite illustrator of books of hours, and Melchior Broederlam, born in Ypres, and who between 1381 and 1399 painted a few wood panels some of which are still kept in the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Dijon, and represent a clear antecedent of the pictorial art that flourished later in the Lower Countries. In these paintings of wood from the Champmol Charterhouse, Melchior Broederlam the most prominent painter of the Flemish-Burgundian international Gothic mixed the most fabulous fantasy with a fresh and vigorous realistic observation. Thus, the painters and sculptors of the Burgundian court constituted around 1400 the most important artistic nucleus of France and the Lower Countries, a nucleus whose renovating action lasted during almost the entire 15th century.

The Pietà tondo with the Holy Trinity, before 1404, tempera and transparent glazes, by Jean Malouel (Louvre). This is Malouel’s most generally accepted painting of his authorship to survive. This painting is considered by many scholars as the first true tondo of the Renaissance. The painting was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, who all appear, and exhibits a style typical of the International Gothic art of the time.
Annunciation and Visitation, left panel of a pair, 1393-1399, by Melchior Broederlam (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon). These two panels (the other is pictured below) are the only known surviving paintings by Broederlam. The panels were the two outsides of the wings for a well-documented carved altarpiece by Jacques de Baerze commissioned by Philip for the Champmol Charterhouse. The use and technique of oil paint used by Broederlam had a strong impact on the painters of the following generation, including Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck. Both panels include two scenes, set in an extensive landscape, and occurring inside pavilion-like buildings in a style influenced by contemporary Italian paintings. Although the perspective is far from fully developed, light and shadow are used to create a sense of depth in a very advanced fashion at the time. In the Annunciation and Visitation panel, the buildings combine Romanesque and Gothic architectures, a way to contrast the Old and New Testaments in a visual metaphor that later will become characteristic of Van Eyck’s paintings.
The right panel with the scene of the Presentation of Jesus and the Flight into Egypt, 1393-1399, by Melchior Broederlam (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon). See above for more information on these paintings.


Hennin: A headdress in the shape of a cone, “steeple”, or truncated cone worn in the late Middle Ages by European women of the nobility. They were most common in Burgundy and France, but also elsewhere, especially at the English courts, and in Northern Europe, Hungary and Poland. They were rare in Italy.


Pleurants: Or weepers refer to anonymous sculpted figures representing mourners, used to decorate elaborate tomb monuments, mostly in the late Middle Ages in Western Europe. Typically they are relatively small, and a group were placed around the sides of a raised tomb monument, perhaps interspersed with armorial decoration, or carrying shields with this. They may be in relief or free-standing. These figures represent the mourners, who pray for the deceased standing during the funeral procession. In the 16th and 17th century the practice of placing anonymous pleurant figures disappeared.