This edited volume was produced to accompany the much anticipated exhibition Borman and Sons: The Best Sculptors, held at M-Museum Leuven from September 20th, 2019 to January 26th, 2020. Like the exhibition itself, it is a feast for any lover of late Gothic sculpture, featuring many rarely seen and difficult-to-visit works as well as some hardly known at all. The summary catalogue at the back of the book illustrates and provides basic data, including bibliographical references, for all of these. For this alone, the exhibition and this book will be of enduring value.
Both the exhibition and the book also brought together some important new discoveries on the Borman family. These supplement the previously known chronology of Jan II of Brussels, famously described in the ducal accounts of the Balienhof at the Coudenberg Palace as the “best sculptor” in 1513. Jan II’s father, Jan I, emerges as a craftsman in his own right working with his son and the brass founder Jan van Naenhoven on the models for the brass choir screen doors of St. Peter’s church in Leuven in 1489. His widow was living in Neerlinter in 1503, giving a terminus ante quem for his death and a possible family birthplace. Jan II and his brother Willem owned two houses in Leuven in 1502; Willem was also apparently living in Leuven. It follows, then, that family connections help to explain the important commissions Jan II received in Leuven and that his father is likely also to have been a sculptor (though given the nature of the St. Peter’s commission he could conceivably have been a joiner too). Family connections also point to a house in Antwerp, potentially useful for the art market of the Antwerp Pand and the export trade, though we are told very little about that.
The Borman volume includes essays by many of the most eminent scholars in the field of late medieval Netherlandish sculpture: Claire Dumortier, Ethan Matt Kavaler, Brigitte d’Hainaut-Zveny (who also did the ground-breaking work on the Bormans in the 1980s), Ria de Boodt, and Emmanuelle Mercier. Up and coming art historians like Emily Pegues also contributed positively and editor Marjan Debaene’s summaries of key documents and historiography are particularly welcome. Although few essays were pitched to the research community, the contribution of Emmanuelle Mercier and the two short pieces on reliquary busts by Adam Harris Levine and Emilio Ruiz de Arcaute Martínez were particularly rich. Nevertheless, I wonder whether a series of mini essays was the best format to choose. This is essentially a substitute exhibition catalogue to serve non-experts as well as experts in perpetuity. Crucial questions fall between the various essays and are never addressed. Vital context-setting is never done. It starts in media res and not at the beginning. It raises fundamental issues of attribution which, given that the catalogue is only a summary one, are never adequately justified or explained.
To give one example: Jan van Naenhoven, with whom Jan I and Jan II collaborated in 1489, had the alternative appellation “Van Thienen” and was a relative of Renier van Thienen with whom Jan II collaborated on the tomb of Mary of Burgundy. I was puzzled that this was never discussed and finally found it mentioned fleetingly in footnote 5 on page 52 by Debaene. Yet surely it suggests an enduring family connection between the Van Thienens and the Bormans that might have been explored further? Neerlinter, the proposed family home of the Bormans, is in fact not as close to Leuven as the volume claims but is closer to Tienen. Do the two families have a geographical link too, then? There may be no answers, but at least these obvious questions might have been addressed to allay the confusion of the reader.
The discussion of the sculpture is also somewhat puzzling. Michel Lefftz points out quite rightly that scholarship on the Bormans has focused hitherto on carved wooden altarpieces (65) and it is certainly true that this volume helps redress the balance. Nevertheless, the only signed and documented works by the Bormans happen to be carved wooden altarpieces: the St. George altarpiece of Jan II (1490–1493, for Our Lady outside the Walls, Leuven, now Brussels, Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire), the Herentals altarpiece of his son Pasquier, and the Güstrow altarpiece usually attributed to another putative son Jan III, both dating from the 1520s. If there is a way of establishing the Borman style it surely means beginning here. Yet too often the attributions appear based on a preconceived idea of the family style rather than on the evidence of the key signed works. Indeed, Lefftz goes so far as to claim that the signed Herentals altarpiece was in fact largely by journeymen (87). If this cannot serve as a reliable indicator of Pasquier’s style, then what can?
Part of the problem here is that for whatever reason, the Borman volume decided against revisiting the Brussels and Leuven contexts in any detail, even though there is sound existing scholarship and the time is definitely ripe for reconsidering Jan Crab’s appraisal of Leuven sculpture, as Debaene tartly observes (18, 62–63). Understanding the contribution of the Bormans, let alone what might be attributed to them, is only possible if we also understand what was produced and might be attributed to Brussels, the workplace of Jan II and all subsequent family members, and Leuven, the putative workplace of Jan I. There were other important sculptors in Brussels, and if Jan II was judged the best sculptor in 1513 he is hardly likely to have been classed as such when he joined the guild in 1479. What did Brussels offer him and what did he offer Brussels? Admittedly, we need to look at carved wooden altarpieces again to work this one out, but it is a step that can and needs to be taken. The volume avoids falling into the trap of making the Bormans into superstars at the expense of the many other sculptors operating at the same time, but it does not adequately explore their competitors.
According to the introduction to the catalogue with which the volume ends, “editorial constraints” precluded including a justification of the attributions. This was an opportunity lost. Compiling this catalogue, and indeed the exhibition, was an amazing enterprise, but the reasoning behind it is not self-evident. Some of the revised attributions proposed are far-reaching: two key statues of Mary Magdalene, the tomb of Isabella of Bourbon, the Zoutleeuw candlestick, and the Arenberg Lamentation are given to Jan I. For all that he is supposed to have been the best sculptor, Jan II suffers in comparison, and even his primary authorship of the St. George altarpiece is now contested. The altarpiece of The Seven Joys of the Virgin and other key sculpture at Margaret of Austria’s foundation at Brou are assigned to Pasquier with, surprisingly, Guyot de Beaugrant. The corpus of altarpieces in Sweden is divided between Pasquier and Jan III. Puzzlingly, even Strängnäs I, which Kavaler convincingly attributes to Jan II (among others) earlier in the volume (114), appears in the catalogue section for Jan III even though he can surely only have been a small boy at the time. The St. Chad’s pulpit is given to Jan III even though this is joiner’s work and not strictly speaking the province of a sculptor at all. The V&A and Boussu altarpieces, hitherto safely assigned to Pasquier, are reattributed to his putative sister Maria Borman. These attributions may well be more convincing to some than to others, and we can certainly agree to disagree. The important point is that there is no hard evidence for most of them, and explanations were sorely needed.
The Borman volume and the exhibition should be celebrated for bringing into the public arena a little-known family of sculptors and a wonderful body of little-known work and, together with host institution M and its sculpture society Ards, for re-energizing a field that has been flagging somewhat in recent decades. That both book and show raise as many queries as they answer is, in a sense, good news. This is not the last word. There is a new, more comprehensive book on the Bormans just waiting to be written.