Cyriel Stoo’s book, De celebratie van de macht, uses the presentation scenes in Burgundian manuscripts made for Philip the Good and his son Charles the Bold as a starting point, leading the reader through a remarkably deft and informative examination of the artistic patronage of the dukes of Burgundy, who used the visual arts and literature to create a vision of rulership that would enhance their efforts to consolidate and legitimate their position in the Netherlands. Stroo begins by focusing on presentation scenes and related expressions of ducal status – the luxury objects that provided a background for courtly ceremonies. The discussion then broadens to consider the role of such works of art alongside the literary and historical texts being written for the dukes, in establishing an image of rule for the Burgundian dukes in a new land, turning established traditions toward new political objectives.
The first section examines these fifteenth-century presentation scenes as the culmination of a convention with its origins in ecclesiastical patronage: miniatures in which a canon, for example, reverently offers the book to a saint. Scenes of presentation in manuscripts made for the Burgundian dukes (and earlier patrons, such as the kings of France, a middle point that might have been explored further) draw on both the form and the flavor of homage that were established within a sacred tradition. Scenes of divine inspiration in these introductory images served to authenticate the texts that followed, an effect Stroo also sees in the reverential presentation scenes that preface so many Burgundian secular manuscripts. Stroo then introduces the presentation scenes in the Chroniques de Hainaut – one for each of the work’s three volumes, illustrated over a period of years for Philip and his successor. The bulk of this first section considers the cast and staging of that canonical scene of Burgundian court life, the frontispiece to the first volume of the Chroniques de Hainaut attributed to Rogier van der Weyden; its unprecedented impact on presentation scenes in later manuscripts; and a group of scenes that apparently resisted its influence, which are here classed as ‘autonomous.’
The next section broadens the inquiry to include other visual evidence of the Burgundian dukes’ self-representation, chiefly coats of arms, and the devices that supported them in one way or another, from the acanthus branches that frame miniatures to the tents, carpets, and suites of tapestry the dukes commissioned with such ardor, all hung with heraldry that defined, claimed, and celebrated their territorial possessions. Stroo also discusses the staging of state ceremonies such as the Joyous Entries, in which the dukes made their power known, and the traces of that symbolic apparatus in the manuscripts they commissioned. He notes, for example, that the presentation miniature in Charles’s copy of Les Faiz d’Alexandre of c.1470, in which the charged space between Charles and the kneeling donor is occupied by a sideboard heavy with jeweled vessels, recalls the three similarly laden sideboards described by Philip’s chroniclers; these apparently caused a stir at the meeting of the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1456. We might be forgiven for concluding that a presentation scene like this reflects an actual ceremony – there is no real evidence that such rituals took place; but Stroo makes a good case in their favor. At the same time, he helps the reader to detect what might be called the emblematic armature beneath the representational image.
The third section addresses the extraordinarily rich contribution to the ‘celebration of power’ made by the dukes’ stable of authors, translators, and historians, who drew on classical topoi, historical and mythical heroes, and conventions from the medieval tradition of princes’ mirrors to glorify their employers. At this point, Stroo brings in the dukes’ political situation within a discussion of their literal appropriation of certain territories and figurative appropriation of certain historical figures. The author’s choice of withholding an explanation of the political context that fostered a work of art (usually established early on to set the scene) is risky but surprisingly effective here, as it keeps our attention trained on the object of the inquiry.
Stroo’s topic is unusually complex, given the standing of the dukes of Burgundy, the financial resources behind their pretensions, and the wealth of contemporary witnesses, amateur and professional writers whose accounts provide him with the keynotes for his discussion of the political background to these representations. Several landmark exhibitions of Burgundian manuscripts at the Royal Library in Brussels (La miniature flamande in 1959, and the two anniversary exhibitions, La librairie de Philippe le Bon/De Librije van Filips de Goede in 1967 and Charles le Téméraire/Karel de Stoute in 1977) made the manuscript patronage of Philip the Good and his son Charles the Bold better known. De celebratie van de macht builds on our growing knowledge about the artistic achievement of these impressive manuscripts, and considers the political messages they might convey – the ‘how’ and ‘why,’ one might say, now that we have tentative answers for the other basic questions. The book’s command of evidence from several disciplines deepens our understanding of the function and purpose of some extraordinary works of art – always a cause for celebration.
Elizabeth J. Moodey
New York Public Library