Carina Fryklund takes as her subject the development of figurative wall painting in the southern Low Countries in the period 1300 to 1500. In doing so, she offers insight into a form of monumental painting that is largely under-studied in English language sources. Fryklund notes that there are multiple reasons for this scholarly neglect including: random survival rates, varying degrees of damage, the remoteness of many of the sites, well-intentioned but faulty restoration attempts, and the whitewashing of murals in later periods. Despite these hurdles, she assembles examples that demonstrate the richness and complexity of mural painting in the southern Low Countries. Unlike previous studies that deal with the subject, Fryklund moves beyond connoisseurship and attempts to understand northern murals in their larger social and political contexts. Specifically, she seeks to explain, “the way in which individual wall paintings reflect the patrons’ personal tastes and aspirations, the role the murals played in the daily and ceremonial life of the age, the extent to which long-standing traditions formalized and determined usage, and the contribution made by key artists of the day to the stylistic development of wall painting design in the southern Low Countries” (6). Her book makes a three-fold contribution to the field of Northern Renaissance studies by reconstructing lost murals through contract and antiquarian data, by explaining the technical details of how late-gothic wall painters in the north accomplished their works, and by bringing to light little known examples of wall painting that are still extant.
In reconstructing lost murals, Fryklund focuses on pictorial cycles in private or semi-private spaces such as castles, hôtels, and chapels and argues that they were part of creating courtly splendor. She uses examples from the Castles of Hesdin, Conflans, and Salle-le-Comte, the Collegiate Church of Our Lady in Courtrai, chapels in Halle and Ghent, and various town hall council chambers. Fryklund notes that genealogies, judgement scenes, scenes of warfare, chivalric romances, and historical accounts dominated the cycles in these locations. On the whole, the murals she describes are either destroyed, exist only as fragments, or have been extensively altered by nineteenth-century (or earlier) restorations. In order to retrieve them from oblivion, Fryklund turns to antiquarian information as well as the few descriptions and contracts still extant that mention the works in question. The antiquarian sources consist of the detailed drawings made of the murals before restoration. Though mostly fragmentary, these drawings provide researchers with a tool for peeling back the restoration and recovering the original image. In addition to these drawings, Fryklund utilizes descriptions in court chronicles and contracts to reconstruct the murals. She includes these sources in her appendix, which provides scholars with a wealth of information.
The author’s reliance on contracts serves her well in the second of her endeavors, describing the working methods of mural artists in the southern Low Countries. These documents, in conjunction with laboratory examinations, demonstrate the complexities of mural production in the region. The contracts provide a view into the working relationships between patrons and artists as well as between artists and their peers. Fryklund notes that these documents conform to patterns established in France, England, Germany, and Italy (66). Contracts provide valuable information, but the laboratory analyses on which Fryklund relies are far more enlightening. Specifically, they point up the significant similarities and differences between Italian and Flemish wall painting techniques and make an argument for the unique character of mural arts in the southern Low Countries. Both approaches (Italian and Flemish) make use of a wide range of buon fresco and fresco secco techniques. The northern approach differs in that it uses a thin arriccio layer covered by a limestone wash in lieu of an intonaco and favors a secco applications over buon fresco. Technical details indicate a quick working method using a limited palette of colors with underdrawings accomplished either freehand or with pouncing techniques. The speed with which northern frescoes could be finished is most evident in a series of tomb paintings Fryklund examines. Her treatment of these tombs, like the sources in her appendix, is yet another contribution to northern studies. She notes that the quick completion of these murals was driven by, “the medieval custom of burying the deceased within one day” (88). Though not every mural was funerary, the speed with which artists in the Low Countries could, and did, complete their work – largely because of the technical differences between Flemish and Italian procedures – points to the unique economic and time pressures at work north of the Alps.
The third contribution, an analysis of little-known extant works, provides interesting parallels between wall painting and contemporary panel painting. Wall paintings were something of a middle term between tapestry and panel painting and would have been attractive to the haute bourgeoisie. Not only was there a price difference between tapestries and murals, but the result also could be more personal. Fryklund notes that, “[u]nlike tapestries, which were frequently purchased from the tapestry merchant’ stock, wall paintings were always custom-made commissions” (284). One of her most striking examples is the Annunciation (fig. 449), painted above the fireplace in a private residence in Bruges (now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels). The mural bears striking resemblances to Annunciations by Dirc Bouts, Joos van Ghent, and Hugo van der Goes. The artist is still unknown but the painting’s similarities to well-known Flemish masters provide ample evidence of wealthy patrons’ desires to follow popular trends in their endeavor to – as Jean Wilson might put it – “live nobly.”
Throughout her study, the author opens vistas onto interesting yet still under-studied subjects. The presence of religious murals in residences, for example, resonates beyond class/political import. It raises myriad questions regarding daily religious practices and invites scholars of lay spirituality and lay devotion to deepen their understanding of sacred images in private spaces. Fryklund’s book is a welcome addition to northern scholarship and will hopefully spur others to broaden our knowledge of this fascinating topic.
Georgia State University