Volume 67 of the Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, is titled Netherlandish Sculpture of the 16th Century and edited by Ethan Matt Kavaler, Frits Scholten, and Joanna Woodall. As Kavaler articulates in his introductory essay, scholarship on the sculptural arts from the Low Countries has remained an art historical subculture. There are several reasons for this marginalization. “Netherlandish” sculpture was in fact transnational; patrons from Iberia to the Baltic sought artists and sculpture from the Low Countries. Additionally, within the Low Countries, iconoclastic movements erased vast amounts of sculpture, and much Netherlandish sculpture is not manifest as large-scale, freestanding statuary featured in the early modern sculptural canon. Rather, tombs, sacrament houses, furniture embellishment (both civic and ecclesiastical), devotional and liturgical objects, and cabinet pieces comprise a significant portion of Netherlandish plastic artistry. Many of these objects’ utilitarian aspects relegate them to the category of “applied art,” typically set in negative opposition to so-called high art. But these essays demonstrate that such distinction ignores how art was made or appreciated in the sixteenth-century Netherlands.
The first essays focus on large-scale devotional infrastructure of churches: altarpieces and sacrament houses. Yao-Fen You discusses Netherlandish retable altarpieces in terms of their modularity and amenability to customization. Focusing on altarpieces exported to the Rhineland, You attributes the broad European reach of Netherlandish altarpieces to these two qualities, which provided patrons with altarpieces that looked “Netherlandish” – a concept that emerges again in Kristoffer Neville’s essay – but also addressed local concerns and traditions.
Aleksandra Lipińska draws upon her considerable expertise on Netherlandish stone altarpieces to demonstrate that latter sixteenth-century artists experimented with both format and materials. Jan Mone is central here; his alabaster had become a favored material for élite altarpiece commissions. Mone created splendid, occasionally unconventional works, including a Halle retable-tabernacle altarpiece, featuring seven tondi, depicting the sacraments. For Lipińska, this work solves a functional challenge: to provide an elevated, visible venue for the host, while reaffirming the ocular Communion, combining Mone’s artistic ambition with his clients’ complex needs.
Ruben Suykerbuyk and Anne-Laure Van Bruaene examine the patronage of two sacrament houses, in Ghent (now lost) and Zoutleeuw. Commissioning such physically imposing, elaborate objects became especially charged after the introduction of Protestantism in the Low Countries. Suykerbuyk and Van Bruaene discern a Counter-Reformation impulse among élites for whom sacrament houses reaffirmed Eucharistic rites and memorialized their families. They also examine the role of ornamental style in these sacrament houses, demonstrating how the assertive, “stylish styles” of Gothic and all’antica ornament reflected patrons’ religious and political motivations.
Marisa Bass examines the interplay between two common features of Netherlandish tomb sculpture: the transi, or decaying body effigy, and lively genii that frolic alongside. She relates this dyadic combination to the materiality of these stone tombs; working in concert, they convey the tension between eternity and ephemerality, the physical and the spiritual, the expiration of death and the animation of life. Bass considers Colijn de Nole’s tomb for Reinoud III van Brederode and his wife, Philippote van der Marck in Vianen (c. 1542–1556), which integrates the visual rhetoric of enlivenment with the traditionally Northern double-decker transi tomb.
In discussing erotic alabaster cabinet pieces by Willem van den Broecke (Paludanus), Giancarlo Fiorenza delves into classical and early modern rhetoric that casts alabaster as materializing feminine beauty and inflaming desire in the spectator. His essay complements Lipińska’s in presenting entirely different possibilities for alabaster in a secular context. It also dialogues with Bass’s essay, further exploring the spirit within sculpture, both in the bodies themselves and in the feelings sculpture stirs in beholders. Angela Glover on carved choir stalls focuses on the beholder’s body. She analyzes how sculpture directs how people move in the world by invoking the concepts of habitus (practices that become bodily memory) and affordance (the ability of physical objects to determine human behavior). Thus, she demonstrates how the format and shape of these stalls assisted the body in liturgical rituals.
Kavaler’s article also considers sculpture as physical encounter. He analyzes the mantelpiece in the Liberty of Bruges, which encompasses alabaster reliefs, black marble carvings, and a genealogical ensemble of fifty coats of arms and five life-size sculptures of Charles V and his grandparents in wood by Guyot de Beaugrant. Kavaler argues that these statues rendered Habsburg rulers permanently present in the Liberty hall, while eliciting performative responses from beholders. Taken together, this ensemble meant to enact complex political relationships between the Liberty, Bruges, and the imperial family.
Ingmar Reesing traces the migration of iconographic motifs across materials and media in the production of small-scale artworks. An ivory Baptism serves as a mold for less expensive, mass-produced terracotta reliefs. Printed scenes from the Biblia pauperum are copied and recontextualized in ivory. Especially fascinating is the vast array of utilitarian objects Reesing evokes: paxes, combs, patacons, books, caskets. These works were pleasing not only as objects, but also as the mediums of everyday life. Countering Walter Benjamin in his conclusion, Reesing notes that, rather than losing their aura through reproduction, these popular images gained cultural currency through it.
Turning to the patron, Kristoffer Neville and Cynthia Osiecki offer complementary evaluations of the reception of Cornelis Floris in the Baltic region. Neville posits that Floris himself was not the appeal for his princely patrons, who were instead more concerned with what Neville calls a “northern court style.” Indeed, if a “Floris style” emerged there, it arose because Floris satisfied his patrons’ taste, and his monuments provided local models for later regional sculptors. Cynthia Osiecki’s essay illuminates the role of prints in the development of this taste network. Osiecki argues convincingly that an intact print album, owned by Ulrich, Duke of Mecklenburg (1527–1603) and containing ornamental prints by the likes of Cornelis Bos and Hans Vredeman de Vries (with none by Cornelis Floris), provided a visual repository of motifs for sculptors engaged by the court. Osiecki links sculpted monuments by Philip Brandin, frequently associated with the so-called Floris school, to prints in Ulrich’s album, indicating that Brandin responded more directly to court taste than to any alleged Floris style.
Tianna Uchacz discusses the transgressive desire to touch sculpture. She focuses on paintings by Jan van Scorel, Marten van Heemskerck, and Willem Key, which address the impulse to touch sculpture as a complex set of desires – carnal lust as well as verification. She considers why so many sculpture-like bodies appear in contemporary painting and how the appreciation of painted bodies was mediated by invoking sculpted ones.
Art history’s present concern with materials and materiality, with histories of collecting, with bodily responses of spectators, and with the mobility of both artists and artworks within and beyond Europe, render this moment opportune for focusing the discipline’s attention on sixteenth-century Netherlandish sculpture. Essays in this volume effectively address all these issues, plus mainstay concerns of Netherlandish sculpture scholarship, including Northern iterations of antique motifs and the effects of iconoclasm on production, reception, style, and format.