This is the fourth in a projected series of five catalogues on the Belgian Royal Museums’ collection of early Netherlandish painting. It follows volumes on The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden Groups (1996), The Dirk Bouts, Petrus Christus, Hans Memling and Hugo van der Goes Groups (1999) and The Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Bouts, Gerard David, Colijn de Coter and Goossen van der Weyden Groups (2001). The five primary authors, together with two collaborators, Géraldine Patigny and Nathalie Toussaint, have produced a monumental volume containing catalogue entries on twenty paintings – individual panels or sets of panels – that are attributed to nine distinct artistic personalities or styles, each governed by a provisional name. The twenty works were produced over a span of about 60 years, from 1473, date of the Master of 1473’s Jan de Witte Triptych (cat. 20), to about 1530, the approximate date given to the Emperor Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl from the workshop of the Master of the Magdalen Legend (cat. 4). A majority of the works – as many as 15 – were painted between 1490 and 1510, a twenty-year span that seems to have constituted a sort of heyday of anonymity.
In addition to the two above-named masters, the catalogue includes works associated with: the Master of the Joseph Sequence, the Master of the Orsoy Altarpiece, the Master of the Saint Barbara Legend, the Master of the Saint Catherine Legend, the Master of the Saint Lucy Legend, the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend, and the Master of the View of Saint Gudule. Each of these provisionally named artists is associated with one, two or three works, except for the Master of the Magdalen Legend, with whom seven works are associated. The person credited with assigning most of these provisional names, Max J. Friedländer, is set up as something of a straw man by the catalogue organizers, who pointedly distinguish their questions from those posed by the founding generation of art historians of early Netherlandish art. But though the tools of investigation wielded here – in particular, the technical tools of infrared photography, X-radiography, stereomicroscopy and dendrochronology – are beyond anything Friedländer and his contemporaries could have imagined, the methodology of Pascale Syfer-d’O lne et al. is not as different as they suggest. Of primary importance for distinguishing the hand of one anonymously authored panel in the catalogue from another is still painting technique, typology and style. It is ultimately not Friedländer’s methodology that is questioned so much as the nature of his attributions. Perhaps somewhat ironically, the real achievement of this catalogue that celebrates the guidance that science provides in interdisciplinary combination with art history’s more interpretation-based skills, is in drawing attention to the ‘messiness’< or lack of unity in the oeuvres associated with several of these anonymous masters. In so doing, the catalogue offers a rich demonstration of the cultural and artistic forces at work during the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth century.
Among the revisions put forward here is that the Royal Museums’ two works attributed to the Master of the St. Ursula Legend – the Virgin and Child of c. 1490 (cat. 16) and the Saint Anne with the Virgin, Child and Saints of c. 1490 (cat. 17) – have no direct connection to the Master’s eponymous work, the panels with the Legend of Saint Ursula, in Bruges’s Groeningemuseum; they are re-assigned to different anonymous artists working in Bruges around the same period. The catalogue also separates the museum’s Virgin and Child among Female Saints of c. 1475-80 (cat. 15) from the eponymous work of the Master of the Saint Lucy Legend (also known as the Master of 1480), in the Groeningemuseum, with which it has been associated since 1903. More far reaching still is the lack of homogeneity that the catalogue emphasizes within the oeuvres not only of these two above-named artists but of the Master of the Magdalen Legend and the Master of the St. Barbara Legend as well. The care the authors take in noting and describing discrepancies between the paint application, drawing style and overall compositional structure of works traditionally assigned to the same provisionally named masters will undoubtedly frustrate those looking for a semblance of biographical unity and stylistic consistency in the art of the period. But what emerges is a more objective – and, I think, accurate – account of the nature of artistic production among this group of artists, as well as a more solid basis on which future investigation into the art of the period can proceed.
By virtue of the large number of paintings in the Royal Museums’ collection formerly attributed to the Master of the Magdalen Legend (cats. 3-9), this volume is especially important for the clear-eyed portrait and reappraisal it provides of this long problematic artist. Since 1900, when Friedländer identified two panels depicting episodes from the Magdalen’s life and created, as it were, a single artistic personality around them, the output of this provisionally named master has grown ever larger, more incongruous and more confusing. In part, this confusion stems from attempts – common to named and documented artists as well – to trace a logical chronological development within the oeuvre of the master, using the traditional three periods of early, mature and late production to explain dramatic discrepancies of style within the body of work. Though questions have been raised in the past few decades about the homogeneity of the Master of the Magdalen Legend’s oeuvre, the authors of this volume are the first, so far as I know, to have reviewed and assessed this material by returning to the criteria introduced by Friedländer in establishing the identity of the artist. In so doing, they provide both a fascinating overview of the methods through which art historians have shaped, occasionally to the point of manhandling, the master’s style and identity, as well as a sober account of distinct stylistic currents within his oeuvre. At least two hands are identified within the eponymous Triptych with Scenes from the Legend of the Magdalen, now separated between Philadelphia (Philadelphia Museum of Art), Güstrow (Schloss) and Budapest (Szépmüvészeti Múzeum) – a stylistic discrepancy, suggestive of division of labor, that is echoed in two of the museum’/ s works, the Du Quesnoy-Van der Tommen Family Triptych(cat. 3), attributed to the master alone, and the above-mentioned Emperor Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl, attributed to his workshop. The authors’ careful, observation-based judgments quietly indict those who would impose a straight stylistic chronology on the master and provide enlightening context for appreciating the production of an early sixteenth-century workshop.
Never accused of being radical re-inventors, the organizers of this Flemish Primitives series have for the most part stuck to the format of previous volumes. Each catalogue entry features a physical description of the work, its provenance, a list of exhibitions in which it has appeared, an account of past restorations and detailed technical notes, sections on the work’s bibliographic history (still antiquatedly called ‘Status Quaestionis’) and iconography, followed by the authors’ interpretation, or critical comments. Sensibly, all color images are now reproduced within the pertinent entry itself.
It should not be expected that a catalogue of this sort should account for the broad cultural and art historical currents that brought about the work of these anonymous masters during the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century. But the authors of volume IV of The Flemish Primitives have provided, perhaps unintentionally, an extremely useful work from which a deeper investigation into the period around 1500 might proceed. Among the phenomena that overlap with the activity of these artists are the emergence of printmaking, the dramatic expansion of the art market and the discovery of the New World. I might suggest that anyone interested in understanding the impact and effects of these very broad developments begin by following some of the very small and particular observations made throughout this volume.
Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University