As a religious artifact, The Ghent Altarpiece (1432) radiates the intangible power of Christ’s sacrifice and God’s forgiveness. As a material work of art, Jan van Eyck’s polyptych pulls the narrative of the Annunciation from some distant Biblical past into the immediacy of the late medieval “present,” putting the story and its message into reaching distance for its spectators. Van Eyck gave the narrative a sense of spatial accessibility by placing a view of a contemporary Flemish street in the background of the piece’s right-center panel. Given the central placement of this comparatively secular city view, what kind of social order does it promote and whom does it serve?
In The Image of the City in Early Netherlandish Painting (1400 – 1550), Jelle De Rock’s richly illustrated monograph, one of the author’s central concerns is to move past religious overtones in Netherlandish panel paintings to view the profane meaning within, asking what these images tell us about how their audiences perceived the urbanity building up around them at a changeful time in European history. Throughout the period covered in this study, De Rock demonstrates that the city in the Burgundian Low Countries was a versatile space where streets and open squares were essentially theatrical venues for the performance of multiple interests and identities. As a concept, the city was a flexible idea to be manipulated by competing social powers. In all cases, the city was a system of signs that formed a visual vocabulary used by an expanding class of urban merchant elites. By evaluating these signs, identifying their authors and audiences, De Rock places the period viewer front and center to the study.
Recent publications in the study of late-medieval artistic reception have opened the existing discourse to new paths of inquiry. For example, David Areford’s The Viewer and the Printed Image in Late Medieval Europe (2010; reviewed in the HNA Review of Books, April 2012) considers the authorial role of the viewer in constructing meaning around devotional woodcuts. De Rock similarly considers the active role of the urban inhabitant in constructing the persona of the Burgundian city. Following Henri Lefebvre’s analysis of space as social ideology, the author traces the social, economic, and political networks that drove the production and reception of the city as depicted in devotional panel paintings. The result is an ambitious study that fills many gaps in a larger conversation about the role of the image in the development of the western metropolis.
De Rock analyzes a cultural moment that occurred in the midst of a volatile reshuffling of socioeconomic power in Burgundian cities. As the history of art often teaches, volatility begets an artistic bloom. At the start of the fifteenth century, power shifted from Europe’s ruling courts to a heterogeneous assemblage of merchant elites centralized in increasingly powerful urban centers. De Rock is careful to point out that the way in which the arts flourished in this period of economic redirection and expansion amplified disparities among the remaining social classes. Nobles and merchant elites flocked to powerful trading centers like Bruges and Ghent, tipping the balance of power toward a new monied urban elite that was internally diverse yet intensely insular. The redirection of money flows created new economic winners keen to devour material goods as “this remarkable lack of social distance within a heterogeneous elite supercharged the consumption of art – in particular panel painting” (p. 37).
De Rock’s analytical handling of the subject of the city is richly detailed. The author takes a quantitative approach to early Netherlandish panel painting that fuses statistical analysis to an exhaustive body of art historical scholarship. The result is a reading of nearly 550 painted city views (often situated in the backgrounds of religious pictures) that reconciles established theory against statistical data that “objectively measure[s] to what extent various dimensions of the urban space are expressed in the pictorial city view” (p. 46). Indeed, “measurement” is central to much of the author’s analyses as he provides multiple graphs that plot the occurrence of certain pictorial phenomena between 1400 and 1550.
In The Mirror of the Artist (1995), Craig Harbison noted that the art of the late-medieval Low Counties was a city-based enterprise, strategically regulated by powerful guilds and their mercantile interests. De Rock probes the centrality of the urban environment to this enterprise across five chapters. These chapters are implicitly threaded together by two recurring themes that divide the book: the Lefebvrian concepts of l’espace vécu, or ‘lived space,’ and l’espace conçu, or ‘conceived space.’ The first chapter evaluates the city as a dynamic site of performance, physically and pictorially. City streets and squares functioned as spaces where processional passion plays imaginatively bound the city to its inhabitants with the shared language of religious image and text. Chapter two, one of the strongest of the book, quantitatively traces the advance of the secular city into devotional religious interiors in panel paintings by Dirk Bouts, Hans Memling, and others. De Rock demonstrates that as aristocrats strengthened their influence on urban communities, an idealized and morally sanitized background image of the city shared progressively more space with foreground scenes of saints and pious merchants. As the city is imaginatively abstracted to downplay the morally dubious influence of commerce and trade, Lefebvre’s idea of ‘lived space’ is apparent. This concept is again implicitly applied in chapter three where the physical spaces of the city yet again function as performance venues, but with a greater emphasis on the display of social and political distinction within heterogeneous communities.
Lefebvre’s concept of ‘conceived space’ seemingly informs the book’s remaining chapters. Chapter four addresses the city as a flexible concept defined by elites who sought refuge from its bustle. In works such as Jacques Daret’s panels from The Arras Altarpiece, ecclesiastical elites embraced the late-fifteenth-century idea of the spiritually idealized landscape as a way to both assert their landed social prestige and define the city as comparatively volatile. In Chapter five, De Rock traces the flexibility of the city-as-concept further, but in this case by chorographers and cartographers who suggested a city’s distinctive socioeconomic persona by describing its unique spatial characteristics. The value of these images was significant. As printed city plans, they functioned as effective promotional materials for businesses and community causes. As representations of urban space, they influenced the development of the painted city portrait. Both chapters suggest that the city is less defined by the material structures within its protective walls than by the socioeconomic interests framing it from without.
Jelle De Rock has synthesized an extensive amount of scholarship to trace the relationship shared among artists, the late medieval city, and the audiences who conceptually defined the experience of the urban space. The author seems hesitant to propose many big ideas about this interplay between image and viewer, leaving this reviewer wanting a few more fresh positions along the way. The book could have also benefitted from an additional round of editing to improve the clarity of its analyses. However, none of this detracts from the immense historical detail and wealth of imagery that De Rock’s book contributes to the fascinating discourse on the development and representation of the western city.
University of California, Irvine