Staging the Court of Burgundy. Proceedings of the Conference “The Splendour of Burgundy” presents a selection of thirty-three essays delivered at a three-day symposium in Bruges that accompanied the 2009 exhibition Charles the Bold (1433-1477): Splendour of Burgundy(Bern, Bruges, and Vienna), for which there is also a major catalogue containing five further essays. As the editors note, not every paper from that symposium has been printed, generally at the request of the author, and indeed just over half of the fifty-seven papers from the conference can be found here.
The title of the proceedings Staging the Court of Burgundy seems to allude to important earlier works by Walter Prevenier and Wim Blockmans, which applied Clifford Geertz’s term “theater-state” to the Burgundian Netherlands: a society dominated by ceremony, where distinctions between performance and reality were often blurred. Most of the essays here deal with public (or at least mediated) presentations and their impact on those who witnessed them. It is by no means limited to the reign of Charles the Bold, the focus of the exhibition; rather, it contains various essays on cultural productions around the earlier court of Philip the Good, as well as Charles’s successor and Mary of Burgundy’s Habsburg husband, Maximilian of Austria.
The displays of cultural products discussed here are not limited to the category of “fine art” as we have inherited it from our nineteenth-century ancestors. Blockmans addresses the lack of clear definition for the terms “art” and “artist” in the fifteenth century in an essay investigating whether the culture of display at the Burgundian court was indeed outstanding compared to rival courts (it was). That essay, one of the opening plenary talks, serves as the volume’s introduction, and opens the door for a broad range of studies covering works that fall into our modern conception of “fine arts,” plus studies into other cultural products. As James Bloom points out in his essay on the performative aspects of Burgundian court culture, “Panel painting was not the dominant visual medium of elite culture.” This volume, therefore, contains more essays on those “fine arts” that the court did favor – manuscripts, metalwork, and fabric arts – than it does on painting and sculpture. It also contains a significant number of studies into other cultural products, from language, poetry and verse, to court ceremonies of every kind (the obvious Chapters of the Golden Fleece and joyous entries, but also weddings and funerals, tournaments and jousts, music and magic, plus the ephemeral works and displays that accompanied these). Together these lavishly illustrated essays present a treasury of information for anyone interested in cultural life around the Burgundian court in the latter part of the fifteenth century, with a particular, though not exclusive, focus on Bruges.
It would be impossible to address all thirty-three essays in this review, but an overview of the papers can be found in the volume’s main introduction by Till Borchert and Anne van Oosterwijk. In reading the essays, I was interested by how many of them profited from a close reading of variants from a single type, focusing on differences between the examples and how they might have functioned for their audiences. This plays out across a range of cultural productions: Borchert gives a very close reading of portrait details, and suggests how those variations might have presented signification to their viewers; Elizabeth Moodey compares images of Charlemagne painted for Philip the Good with other examples, and links the differences she finds to the duke’s particular interests in the legend of the Emperor; and Henk t’Jong’s compares different depictions of Marcel Aubert in his manuscripts to identify exactly what one might expect to find in a scribe’s room. His argument follows a line of reasoning about the “reality of symbols” that was already pursued in the 1980s by Jan Baptist Bedaux on the Arnolfini double portrait and Jozef de Coo on the Mérode Altarpiece, but oddly without reference to either author. I found Andrew Hamilton’s microscopic study of different paraments embroidered for the Order of the Golden Fleece worthy of particular note, not only for its detail but also for the author’s own pen and watercolor renderings of stitch patterns and technique, themselves as detailed and refined as anything produced in the Burgundian Netherlands.
Outside traditional “fine art,” Johan Oosterman investigates Bruges rederijker Anthonis de Roovere’s different accounts of the 1468 wedding of Charles the Bold to Margaret of York, one of at least four essays that discuss the Excellente Cronike van Vlaenderen; Jesse Hurlbut compares Charles the Bold’s different inaugural ceremonies in 1467 as displays of the political process; and Eric Bousmar analyzes the jousting rosters at different pas d’armes from the 1440s to the 1460s, detecting, among other things, an upward shift in the social rank of the challengers.
This begins to give some idea of the range of cultural products that are analyzed here, and only scratches the surface of the wealth of information awaiting the reader of these proceedings. One criticism of the volume is a certain carelessness in its proofreading, particularly in the essays that, I presume, were translated into English. Reading an otherwise excellent essay is interrupted by sentences like “courtiers who could look at the paintings and listing to readings” (23; my italics), or “In the emergence constructions of identity at the court of Burgundy” (285), to name but two instances. This might sound petty, even though it does occur more than infrequently, but that sort of oversight also resulted in a statement about “Philip the Good’s 1440 entry into Ghent” (121), which might mislead those less familiar with the duke’s triumphal returns to Bruges in 1440 and Ghent in 1458.
That said, these essays present a great number of excellent thoughts about cultural products and their display and reception in the era of the last Burgundian dukes. The volume offers a wide range of material that will prove invaluable to scholars of the fifteenth-century Low Countries, and stands as a worthy companion to the catalogue for the exhibition that inspired it.