In taking on the thorniest and most interesting questions associated with early Netherlandish art, there is the dramatic approach that aims to resolve an issue or serve as the final word, much like a prize fight pits its opponents against one another in a thrilling battle of wills; and then there is the quiet and more stealthful approach that aims to re-assess old questions or ask new ones, much like taking up a well worn wall-to-wall carpet reveals an unexpectedly brilliant hardwood floor. If the exhibition and catalogue on The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden may serve in the context of the present analogy as an example of the first (see Nancy Zinn’s review), then Dominique Vanwijnsberghe’s study of illuminated manuscript production in Tournai between 1380 and 1430 is a vivid and eloquent manifestation of the second.
This is an important book in two ways. First, it offers a thorough and sensitive examination and appraisal of manuscript illumination in a center of production linked intimately to the beginnings of the new style of and approach to painting in northern Europe, the ars nova. Though many studies have focused on panel painting in the environs of Robert Campin and his adopted city, nothing this substantial had ever been attempted in the domain of Tournaisian illumination. In exposing and exploring the richness of manuscript production around Tournai, as well as its links to Campin’s art, the book makes a convincing case for its specific relevance and broader significance in the field.
Second, the way “Moult bons et notables” reconstructs the production of illuminated manuscripts in Tournai during the era offers a strong model for assessing artistic production in other centers. Vanwijnsberghe’s starting point and consistent point of return is the manuscript production itself, presented through a group of about thirty manuscripts – some complete, some fragmentary – associated with the Tournaisian scene. Yet, as sensitive as the discussion of these manuscripts is, it is Vanwijnsberghe’s broader contextual analysis – of local patronage, iconography, literary tradition, corporate procedure, collaboration, and contacts with Paris and other centers – that ultimately brings home the importance of the group of manuscripts within early Netherlandish art, as well as the implications of the book’s subject for future research. The author seamlessly and engagingly blends technical, stylistic, iconographic, historical, archival, and philological analysis so as to negate the appearance of any specific methodology.
Though Campin is the ghost hovering over the book’s setting and era, it is the Tournai-based artist Jean Sermont who is its real subject and star. A missal documented as having been illuminated by Sermont between 1409 and 1414 for presentation to the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Armand is the work around which the other manuscripts associated with Tournai are assembled. Called the Missal of Jean Olivier after the Tournai-born priest who commissioned the manuscript for the abbey, the manuscript, now housed in the Municipal Library of Valenciennes, forms the documented core of a group of works illuminated by Sermont, his followers and/or his workshop. The documented authorship of the missal directly contradicts the idea, associated with Georges Dogaer and others, that early fifteenth-century illuminators remained anonymous among their contemporaries or became unknown to later historians and, even more important, serves to establish some of the key characteristics of Jean Sermont’s artistic personality. In spite of the Tournaisian focus of this volume, it is to Vanwijnsberghe’s real credit that he does not shy away from putting the illuminator’s work in the broad context of the art of the period, nor from acutely recognizing Sermont’s indebtedness to traditional French models. A glance at the full-page miniatures of the Crucifixion (fols. 130v and 137v) and the eight historiated initials illuminated by Sermont reveals this debt clearly. Yet, the author also draws attention to characteristics of the missal’s illumination that subtly though indisputably distinguish it from contemporaneous Parisian examples, like improvisations on a traditional theme or motif. The beautifully drawn and decorated historiated initials are perhaps the most eloquent expression of the manuscript’s distinct character; and the volume’s fine quality and sensitively chosen illustrations show these characteristics to good advantage.
Through this and the subsequent manuscripts associated with Sermont and/or Tournai, most on the basis of stylistic attribution, the city emerges as a vibrant center of artistic production. Situated between Paris and Flanders, it absorbed the traditions of the old guard together with the new realism and culture emerging from within the Burgundian Netherlands. A group of manuscripts associated with the anonymous Maître de la Règle de l’Hôpital Notre-Dame sheds light on the transmission of styles and ideas along the Scheldt River, as well as on the origins and influence of the Master of Guillebert de Mets’s work. While the quality of this particular group, illuminated between 1420 and 1430, may strike some as crude – in particular, when compared to the heights of pre-Eyckian miniature paining –, the sparkling intellectual and social milieu in which the works were fermented vividly evoked by the author, more than makes up for any reservations of quality. The book also describes and accounts for the frequent links between Tournai’s miniature and sculptural, especially funereal arts, as well as the many points of contact between panel painting and Tournaisian illumination.
It would be a terrific shame if “Moult bons et notables” were to be read and used solely because of its association with and “illumination” of the work of Campin, but even by this measure the book is a valuable and fascinating resource. Three miniatures, two from the Princeton University Art Museum and one from the Riksmuseum Twenthe at Enschede, detached from what must have been a lavish prayerbook intended for a woman of means, are here attributed to Campin’s circle. The attributions are convincingly made on the basis of the miniatures’ marginal decoration, which is clearly Tournaisian, and the stylistic and qualitative links to works in the Campin oeuvre.
As important as these additions to the catalogue of work in the Campin milieu may be, however, an even greater value of this book is the rich understanding it provides of the milieu in which Campin, his predecessors and contemporaries worked. It conveys a rich sense of and appreciation for the artistic, social, religious and economic forces that helped generate the ars nova in the southern Netherlands; and, in so doing, reflects on matters well beyond Campin’s art or even Tournai itself.
Stern College for Women
Yeshiva University Museum