Like any history, Netherlandish art has its awkward in-between stages. In the early modern instance, this neglected period is defined by the generation between the death of Bruegel and before the advent of Rubens, to speak in terms of canonical artists, or during the tumultuous early phase of the Dutch Revolt, up to the fall of Antwerp – the years delimited in the subtitle of this volume. Significantly, in Holland – to go by Rijksmuseum exhibitions – the period “before Iconoclasm, 1520-1580” (1986) was followed by the “Dawn of the Golden Age, 1580-1620” (1992), but the same gap persisted; what really got left out was Dutch art between Heemskerck and Goltzius.
Into the breach steps Koenraad Jonckheere, prolific author of recent mono-graphs on both Willem and Adriaen Thomasz Key as well as a forthcoming study of Michael Coxcie. All these artists – plus neglected figures like Ambrosius Francken and Frans Pourbus the Elder – have led him to reformulate this historical period as significantly more than a mere transition, but instead as a critical turning point when the status of religious imagery was reformulated in the wake of Iconoclasm (but also after a half-century of mounting regional debates, summarized in Chapter 1). For one who has published focused monographs on individual artists, Jonckheere’s deep familiarity with published theological treatises of the sweep of his magisterial book are impressive indeed, though he fully credits David Freedberg’s foundational dissertation (1988).
Additionally, this full-color Mercatorfonds book (distributed by Yale) also offers visual delight, both in good images and details of many unfamiliar or rarely illustrated works, including graphics. Its clear, concise prose provides a stimulating read in the translation by Kist and Kilian. Jonckheere has also co-edited a second volume, an anthology (reviewed separately) of diverse essays by distinguished colleagues on this same period to complement his book.
Ultimately, the basic issue focuses on religious art, its proper role, and its status or function as an image. Jonckheere (note his subtitle) formulates this issue (with Molanus) as decorum, by which he means religious propriety, including eliminating apocryphal visual traditions in favor of strict iconographic adherence to scripture and observing certain behavior before religious images (Chapters 5-6), “Bending, Bowing and Kneeling” and “Images of Stone and Idols of Gold”). But he also notes that the theologians really did not provide guidance to the newly challenged artists, who had to devise their own solutions and to seek “pictorial ecumenism.” Chapter 2 (“Taking a Stand”) focuses on Antwerp artists in reaction to the image debate and the nascent Dutch Revolt, including a critical survey of their prosperity and religious affiliations (p. 48, though some Calvinists, such as Pourbus, actively painted altarpieces). Yet Jonckheere assiduously avoids labels to define any artist’s individual confessional commitment (asserted via signatures or self-portraits) within a confusing, often deeply personal spectrum of beliefs (51-52). This entire discussion also has serious (if unresolvable) implications for Bruegel scholarship in particular, suggested but not directly addressed (like the artist’s own elusive pictures). Jonckheere is most emphatic about the Massacre of the Innocents (66) and grisailles (204-15). Bruegel now clearly emerges as engaged with the same current issues and events (something I also suggested in my 2011 monograph, especially for the Triumph of Death).
Closer analysis of artistic approaches and responses to the Iconoclasm challenges fills the remaining bulk of the book. Certain themes, e.g. John the Baptist Preaching, held obvious Protestant resonance in echo of contemporary hedge preaching. Chapter 3, colorfully titled “Dirty Feet and Filthy Fingernails,” argues forcefully from small details that painters deliberately emphasized corporeal shortcomings in rendering historical saints to underscore their carnality and human sinfulness. Thus did reforming artists attempted to wean Christians of the saints’ cult of sanctity (anticipating Caravaggism; 263-69). Despite the small sample, his argument is strong; however, it begs the question of how early (Floris is suggested at p. 93) such visual desacralization first held theological meaning. Age wrinkles or browned also figure early for saints, and surely grotesque faces are not confined to tormentors. Nudity (115-27) and eroticism define temptations or weaknesses of saints already in Bosch, but not with sainthood like Key’s new form of the topless Magdalene (figs. 104, 107-09). St. Jerome, long featured in earlier humanist imagery fusing the saint’s study with wilderness, appeared with grotesque face (sometimes with bared torso) and/or with desktop skull (figs. 94-98), which seem to qualify these later period assertions.
Portraits historiés (Chapter 4) embedded donor portraits (and sometimes artists’ self-portraits) into religious narratives, especially Last Suppers (Chapter 7), well before the more familiar 1seventeenth-century phenomenon, although officially renounced by Catholics and Calvinists alike. According to Jonckheere, this practice asserts that those depicted present themselves as “servants of a ‘purified’ faith,” while they anchor saintly figures as distinctly ordinary humans. Such portraits of patrons hover “between the glorification of man and the desacralization of the holy” (p. 167). Confessional boundaries could easily blur; one case study, Pourbus’s Ghent triptych for Catholic jurist Viglius ab Aytta (1571; figs. 134-35), is filled with artists’ portraits in scenes of the Incarnation. Here one could wish for a fuller discussion of De Vos’s Panhuys Panel (figs. 57-58) whose portraits surround Moses and the Law.
In general, Jonckheere has written a thoughtful, penetrating consideration of a contentious period of religious art-making in and around Antwerp. As usual, the bias of painting specialists against prints, even those designed by the same artists (viz. De Vos) limits some of the post-Tridentine significance of the discussion even though more works would have swelled the pages considerably. Moreover, his welcome emphasis on relatively neglected painters, esp. those Jonckheere favors – Pourbus, Francken, Key, and Coxcie – means that painters such as De Vos receive short shrift, unfortunate because despite Zweite’s 1980 monograph of the paintings and the New Hollstein prints catalogue, only scattered articles have reconsidered that artist-designer and his dominant career, which sits squarely across this time period and locale and even straddles the Lutheran/Catholic boundary, involving major patrons.
But to quibble thus is to see this large Belgian beverage container as a glass half-empty, whereas Koenraad Jonckheere has advanced our knowledge and our re-thinking of the late sixteenth century in Flanders by a quantum leap. This book, both welcome and necessary, will remain foundational, to stimulate both lively discussion and new research for a generation to come.
University of Pennsylvania