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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.