With the publication of its twentieth volume, the well-known Corpus of Fifteenth-Century Painting has undergone a major facelift. As explained by the authors in their Introduction, some of the points of departure that were formulated in the first volume (Corpus Groeningemuseum Brugge, 1951) are now considered to be too rigid, some outdated, even in some cases utopian.
The quest for completeness has been a major reason for the slow pace in the successive publication of volumes. With the bibliography of early Netherlandish painting growing dramatically year by year, the attempt to compile a comprehensive file on a work of art is not only cumbersome and prohibitively time-consuming, but irrelevant as well. As soon as a volume appears, it becomes outdated. For this reason, among others, many critics have called for a more synthetic approach, geared toward essentials rather than massive amounts of (often contradictory) information. As high-quality color photographs can now be published at reasonable cost, long, detailed descriptions and systematic color notes have become obsolete. The myth of “total objectivity” has also been questioned. In previous volumes, the author remained in the background, given the opportunity to offer an opinion in a separate section at the end of each entry.
Meanwhile, a number of systematic museum catalogues of early Netherlandish paintings have appeared, offering valuable alternatives. In their catalogue of the National Gallery of Art’s collection, the authors, John Hand and Martha Wolff, demonstrate how rewarding shorter entries and the publication of comparative material can be (Early Netherlandish Painting, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue, Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art, 1986). Moreover, their appreciation of the artistic quality of certain works, is never felt as an infringement upon their presumed objectivity.
In the Introduction to his recent National Gallery catalogue, Lorne Campbell identifies some of the natural advantages of more recent scholarship and explains his choice not to revise the London Corpus volumes of his predecessor, Martin Davies: “I have had greater opportunities to develop hypotheses, pursue arguments and pay greater attention to the people, artists and patrons, who were involved in the making of these pictures.” (The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings, National Gallery Catalogues, London 1998, p. 7.)
Having absorbed and learned from these and similar endeavors, the producers of the Corpus have arrived at a new format. As before, each entry contains ten sections, but they are now in a sequence that better reflects current developments and interests in art historical research:
1. Identification (Corpus no., inv. no. in the collection, artist – group & no., title, signature and date, inscriptions, heraldry and emblems, marks)
2. History of the work (origin and subsequent history, material history, exhibitions)
3. History of the research
4. Physical analysis (form, dimensions, support, frame, painted surface, marks, ground, underlying drawing, paint layer, varnish, restorations)
5. Pictorial analysis
6. Comparative material
8. Documents and literary sources
10. List of illustrations
With regard to the organization of entries, it is worth noting that the historiography of a work has become an independent section, whereas before author’s opinions were spread throughout different sections of the entry. It is also praiseworthy that the formerly byzantine reference system – e.g. Dhanens (292 378), by which the novice reader would be sent searching extensive bibliographical lists, before figuring out that the 292 referred rather irrelevantly to the 292th publication listed in the bibliography of the entry – has been replaced by a more common, user-friendly author-date-page reference in parentheses. Another major improvement is that illustrations are now included with the text, making comparison considerably easier.
What follows is the exemplary physical analysis with which the Corpushas made its high scholarly reputation since the very first volume. Evidently, due to the evolution of IRR- and XR-documentation, the technical images are more legible than in the earlier volumes. In the pictorial analysis, the painting is described and its iconography discussed. Lists of comparative material, withheld from the earlier volumes, are now fully integrated, while relevant works are illustrated in the Comments section.
For the first time, the curator of the host collection – in this case, of the Mayer van den Bergh Museum, Hans Nieuwdorp – is allowed the opportunity, in a brief Foreword, to share some relevant information on the history of collecting within the Museum. To my mind, it would be beneficial to make this a more elaborate introductory section in each volume.
Fortunately, the name of the Center has again been re-baptized – into Centre d’étude de la peinture du quinzième siècle dans les Pays-Bas méridionaux et la Principauté de Liège. This is after the original name, “Centre national de recherches ‘Primitives flamands’,” had been changed in the early ‘90s under pressure of a Liégeois minister into the even more awkward “Centre international d’étude de la peinture médiévale des bassins de l’Escaut et de la Meuse.” Some colleagues wondered why the adjacent canals were not mentioned in the title, especially since Bruges lies neither on the Scheldt nor at the Meuse. Let’s hear it for progress!
Maximiliaan P.J. Martens
University of Ghent