Some books are more necessary than others. This English re-edition of Aleksandra Lipinska’s study on Southern Netherlandish alabasters most definitely fills an important gap in the research on Flemish sculpture and its dissemination in Europe. Since the last major contributions, Michael Wustrack’s volume published in1982 and the 1999 exhibition catalogue of the Royal Museum of Art & History, Brussels, few texts on this subject have been written. As an experienced traveler herself – she started to work on the topic as early as 1994 – Lipinska grants the reader the privilege to follow her footsteps on the alabaster trail, as she puts it. Indeed, alabasters made in sixteenth-century Mechelen and Antwerp became, besides carved wooden retables, an internationally acclaimed art product from the Southern Netherlands. Quality standards were so high that these precious works of art were repeatedly thought to have originated in Italy.
One of the important achievements of Lipinska’s text is that, inspired by the methodological concept of cultural transfer, attention is not only given to the manufacturing of these valued art objects but also to the demand side, more specifically to those regions in Northern and Central Europe where the alabasters became so highly appreciated. In the first part of the book the supply side is explored, starting with alabaster as a sculptural material including – most interestingly – its semantic field and iconological qualities, e.g. a dead body’s kinship to marble as a substance. The introduction is followed by an overview of the use of alabaster in Southern Netherlandish sculpture, which got its primary impulses from the artistic flowering at the court of Margaret of Austria and from immigrant artists such as Conrad Meit (1485-1550/51) and Jean Mone (1480/1490-1538/1558).
Several leading sculptors followed these trend-setting artists, to name just Cornelis II Floris (1514-1575) and Jacques Dubroeucq (1500/1510-1584), who executed works on a monumental scale. In contrast, the second chapter is dedicated to small-scale works primarily produced in Mechelen. These alabasters seem mainly to have been sold in Antwerp, where a large market for luxury goods had developed. Next to the production of high-end reliefs, “huisaltaartjes” (literally small domestic retables) and statuettes, a serial production of less refined objects, gradually evolved in Mechelen. Although Antwerp also seems to have participated in the manufacturing of these alabasters, how much remains moot. The final chapter of the first part of the book is devoted to the spread of these small alabaster sculptures, destined for the free market. Lipinska illuminates the function of the Antwerp Onze-Lieve-Vrouwpand, the role of merchants and bankers, and of emigrating artists and travelers.
In the second part of the book the author’s attention shifts to the side of demand. The first two chapters are dedicated to monumental church decoration, i.e. retables and epitaphs, in Saxony, Brandenburg, Prussia, Silesia and Denmark. Here the discussion splits into two parts. The first part highlights prestigious commissions from high-ranking dignitaries, such as August Elector of Saxony, and from church authorities, executed in situ by South Netherlandish artists and their assistants. The second part focuses on alabaster components, mainly reliefs, imported from the Southern Netherlands. These sculptural parts consequently were integrated into larger structures, executed by local artists and artisans. In a major contribution the author explores the “afterlife” of these exported sculptures to exemplify her methodological starting-point of cultural transfer. Lipinska presents several fascinating examples, which epitomize different types of “re-use”, varying from reliefs integrated into monumental constructions executed in stone to triptych structures enclosing “autonomous” huisaltaartjes.
However, two attempts to interpret the iconography of these reliefs in light of the ideological backgrounds of their patrons or owners remain less convincing. Nor can the theme of the Compassio Patris or the allegorical representation of the Resurrected Christ Triumphant over the Old Law, Death and Sin be unambiguously claimed to be an overt or underlying Lutheran tenet. Both iconographic themes also appear within a Catholic context in the Southern Netherlands; indeed, the former fairly often. However, it certainly is possible that the same subject could be perceived differently according to the religious framework where it “operated”, but that remains to be studied in specific cases.
Next, Southern Netherlandish alabasters in Central European private settings environments are considered. Leading private collections mainly comsisted of standard topics: copies after great works from antiquity and the Renaissance; portraits; and representations of mythological and religious subjects. Reliefs and statuettes also featured in so called alabaster chambers modeled after Italian examples, such as the camerino d’alabastro at Alfonso d’Este’s palace in Ferrara. Examples can be found at the castles in Kassel and Schwerin, the latter among others adorned with pieces by Willem van den Broecke (1530-1579), as well as in houses of wealthy merchants, such as Klaus von Bercken in Lübeck.
Whereas the first part of the book devotes more attention to small sculptures resulting from serial production, the second part mainly focuses on costly monumental commissions and the exclusive niche of Flemish production. Although the author’s point is that these high-end examples initiated a more general taste for Southern Netherlandish alabasters, the fact remains that the study of how numerous individual objects “without a history”, nowadays integrated into a new cultural context remains difficult, particularly today after the spread of those works across many museums and private collections,. Nevertheless, Lipinska’s excellent, broad-ranging study provides a perfect stimulus for further research into the “consumption” of these exquisite works of art in the broader patrician circles of Central and Northern Europe.
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen