Dominique Deneffe, Famke Peters and Wim Fremout, eds., Pre-Eyckian Panel Painting in the Low Countries. Vol. I: Catalogue, by Dominique Deneffe, Famke Peters, Wim Fremout et al.; Vol. II: Essays, by Barbara Baert, Christina Currie, Livia Depuydt-Elbaum et al. Edited by Cyriel Stroo (Contributions to Fifteenth-Century Painting in the Southern Netherlands and the Principality of Liège, 9). Brussels: IRPA; Turnhout: Brepols 2009. 720 pp, ca. 400 col. illus. ISBN 978-2-87033-014-6.
Anne Dubois, Roel Slachmuylders, Geraldine Patigny, Famke Peters, The Flemish Primitives V: Anonymous Masters (The Flemish Primitives: Catalogue of Early Netherlandish Painting in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Musées royaux des beaux-arts de Belgique, V). Turnhout: Brepols 2009. 336 pp, 203 b&w illus., 105 col. illus. ISBN 978-2-503-53058-1.
A previously unpublished early Netherlandish triptych recently came to light (See HNA Newsletter, vol. 29, no. 2, November 2012, p. 5); its subject, The Embalming of Christ, is unusual, and its condition especially high. These factors, plus the surprising existence of the triptych at all, fuelled a scholarly and public interest in the work. It became the centerpiece of an exhibition, ‘The Road to Van Eyck,’ at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam (October 13, 2012 – February 10, 2013). The triptych might have come from a workshop in Bruges around 1410, that is, in the period immediately before Jan van Eyck arrived from The Hague and overhauled Southern Netherlandish painting in its style, technique, and degree of verisimilitude. The Embalming, which is in a private collection in Italy, increases the 30-odd known pre-Eyckian paintings, a term that has become a catch-all for works made from ca. 1380 until ca. 1430. This category also includes illuminated manuscripts, which are better represented than panels. Considering the exhibition in Rotterdam, the newly discovered triptych, and the three volumes under review here, pre-Eyckian paintings are receiving considerable attention at the moment. And I hope this is only the beginning. There is much yet to be done.
The books under review are the two-volume Pre-Eyckian Panel Painting in the Low Countries, edited by Cyriel Stroo with more than a dozen authors, and The Flemish Primitives V: Anonymous Masters, written by Anne Dubois and others. Both books provide extensive technical studies, including dendrochronological analysis, infrared reflectography, stereomicroscopic study, x-ray and UV analysis, and examination of paint samples. I do not have the expertise to judge these studies as presented in these volumes, nor access to all the images and data that produced it, but can say that the volumes present a feast of materiality. Our corner of the discipline lends itself to such analyses, as the objects assert themselves with their wood, gold, tin, metal hinges, exotic pigments, and oil paints. The more that technology makes the disembodied, digitized image more omnipresent, the more that same technology insists on the materiality of the objects by probing the objects beneath visible layers.
The first volume of Pre-Eyckian Panel Painting treats ten paintings thoroughly, with a wide variety of research tools. The book begins with methodological notes about infrared reflectography (Christina Currie), dendrochronology (Pascale Fraiture), and other lab techniques (Wim Fremout, Steven Saverwyns, and Jana Sanyova). These form the hard-science approaches to the paintings. Each entry also includes a pictorial analysis, which is an art historical inquiry primarily from an iconographic approach. The objects, representing approximately one-third of the known ‘pre-Eyckian’ paintings, are extensively studied. One of the images is painted in tempera, but most of the works are done in oil paint. We already know that the Van Eycks did not invent oil painting. What is surprising – at least to me – is how many of these works are composite objects. Several of them are complex, multi-panel affairs, which might be better described as sculptures comprising painted panels and other elements. ‘Pre-Eyckian’ paintings are not simply paintings on panel, but rather, they have objects stuck to them: gold foil with patterns of perforations, tin foil about twice as thick as you might use to wrap a boterham, which have been moulded, gilded, and painted, and then glued onto the panel to provide an area with a repeated metallic surface texture. Artists embellished paintings with carved wooden rosettes, arcades, and stars. They used hinges to make objects that folded around a central statuette or opened to reveal a neat array of saints.
The authors describe all of these processes in tremendous detail, providing highly useful images. They frequently use my favourite word: stratigraphy: how an object was put together in layers. What is surprising about these objects is that they contain multiple parts, and that figures represented in one medium interact with those represented in another medium. For example, a detail of the Tower Retable in Antwerp – lean and spindly and covered in gold – shows the Adoration of the Magi. They have followed a star that is not painted in oil paint but punched with holes in the gold-leaf sky. A painted angel, who points to the star, therefore interacts with an object rendered in a different medium and constructed at a different layer of the object’s stratigraphy. All of these additive pieces and crafted portions are precisely what vanished after Jan van Eyck came onto the scene. As Cyriel Stroo and Dominique Vanwijnsberghe explain in the Introduction, ‘With the refined use of oil paint, and its ability to evoke the illusion of every kind of textile, gold and silver leaf, tin foil, pastiglia and prefabricated reliefs became virtually redundant’ (I, 19). All of these bits and bobbles are precisely what make pre-Eyckian painting a weird and varied composite.
The extensive pictorial analysis accompanying each object emphasizes the source of the motifs – iconographic truffle hounding –, relationships between the figures in oil paint and analogous ones in illuminated manuscripts. The authors present details side-by-side with manuscript illuminations, drawings, and other pre-Eyckian paintings in a tour de force of formal analysis. Whereas some of the iconographic discussion seems old-fashioned, it is tempered in the ‘Comments’ section for each catalogue entry, in which the authors provide more speculative analysis. Exciting, for example, in the discussion of the Mechelen altar is that the object with its multiple niches might have contained relics and have been made for a hospital, for example, the hospital in Mechelen. In this way, the object may be a forerunner, one hundred years earlier, of the besloten hofjes made in the milieu of the Augustinian Black Sisters, who worked in the hospital. This book offers something to everyone: technical analysis, a keen commitment to pictorial analysis, and a smattering of social history. Although the catalogue does not treat the wings of the famous Crucifixion altarpiece, painted by Melchior Broederlam and Jacob de Baerze (Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts), it remains the pivotal object around which much discussion rests. After all, the triptych is the only pre-Eyckian painting with a firm date and named maker, the only object from the period with a surviving contract, with a named donor and known plan of location.
The producers of the two-volume Pre-Eyckian Panel Painting in the Low Countries have spared no cost in the materials: it is a lush, full-color volume with stupendous images that have been taken largely from recent technical analysis of a few key objects: the tall, pointy shrine in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh; the painted panels by Melchoir Broederlam for the Crucifixion Altar in Dijon. I am pleased, too, to discover that the images in the volume are largely available on-line through the IRPA-KIK website. This is, for example, useful pedagogically, so that the technical analyses themselves have been well-funded. With the cataloguing and technical analysis completed, it is time for more rigorous and engaging synthesis. After so much close scrutiny and individual analysis, one would like to read about the forest rather than the trees. The Essays attempt this, albeit with mixed success.
The essays in the second volume are admittedly uneven in quality. Only two contributions, those by Schmidt and Currie have clearly stated theses with sustained arguments. The remaining essays appear primarily descriptive. Unfortunately, the editors of the second volume did not translate all of the primary texts, including the payment records, cited in the essays.
Christina Currie’s substantial essay, ‘Genesis of a Pre- Eyckian Masterpiece: Melchior Broederlam’s Painted Wings for the Crucifixion Altarpiece’, covers all of the technical analyses of the panels (everything from the underdrawing to the overpainting). Armed with those findings, and with the results of a recent study of the Chapterhouse of Champmol by Renate Prochno, who transcribes the relevant documents, Currie argues that Broederlam adhered to a method of painting very close to methods described by medieval recipe books for painters. The photos are superb, including those that reveal the initials “P” and “M” of Philip and his wife Margaret, punched into the gilding of the frame. Thought-provoking and helpful are the IRR photographic assemblies, which Currie has overdrawn in red to highlight the ruled construction lines. Interestingly, Broederlam employed a ruler to lay out the images of architecture in both panels.
Barbara Baert provides an overview of some of the recent literature about gold. Although useful, her essay heavily relies on secondary scholarship, such as that of Marie-Madeleine Gauthier, Wolfgang Schöne, and Henk van Os, without critical evaluation.
Victor Schmidt, in ‘Panel Painting in France and the Southern Netherlands and the Influence of Italy’, systematically looks for ways in which painters from the Netherlands might have had access to Italian sources. He argues, for example, that sketches and model books played an important role in transmitting Italian painting to the north, as did the French court.
Ingrid Geelen and Delphine Steynaert, in ‘”Ende wyldyt anders yet verheuen maken…”: Relief Decorations in the Art of around 1400’, discuss a Southern Netherlandish recipe book (London, British Library, Ms. Sloan 345), which describes a technique for making gilded frames. They also provide a chronological analysis of the parts attached to paintings, those items that faded from use in the era of Jan van Eyck.
Livia Depuydt-Elbaum’s contribution is titled ‘Scenes from the Infancy of Christ: The Tower Retable in the Mayer van den Bergh Museum. Preliminary Study – Restoration – Observations’; Elisabeth Dhanens offers ‘A Contribution to the Study of Pre-Eyckian Panel Painting in Ghent’, which is useful and driven by archival documents pertaining to works of art. It is an extract from her much longer on-going project about Ghent before the Iconoclastic Fury. Space does note allow me to discuss all of the essays in detail.
The second publication reviewed here, The Flemish Primitives by Anne Dubois and her colleagues, is the fifth and final volume in a series dedicated to the so-called ‘Flemish primitives’ in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium that has consistently delivered in-depth analyses of single paintings. The volumes address around eighty Southern Netherlandish paintings in Brussels. In 1984 the committee distributed them into five books, with the first three volumes grouped around named artists, the fourth treating paintings attributed to masters with provisional names from ca. 1470-1550, and the final volume treating paintings that have been unnamed, ignored, and largely unloved: those works that have not been placed in the orbit of a famous name. The thirteen objects studied, including two pre-Eyckian works and a painting on canvas, are fascinating, nonetheless. The group of paintings detailed here – thirteen of them – include two pre-Eyckian works and a painting on linen.
The formula for analyzing paintings in these volumes is largely descriptive, less so interpretive. Itemized for each work are its physical description, provenance, exhibition history, restoration overview, technical analysis (including support, underdrawing, paint layers, other materials), the status quaestionis, iconography, and other comments. Each of these sections is treated with utmost thoroughness.
One of the paintings under consideration, Scenes from the Life of the Virgin, made ca. 1400 (which is also, incidentally, covered in Pre-Eyckian Panel Painting in the Low Countries, vol. I), had been repurposed in the seventeenth century as a board for an item of furniture. Needless to say, it bears the damage and signs of this secondary use. Fascinating about this painting, however, is its use of tin reliefs that have been stuck onto the surface of the painting to signify windows behind the Annunciation. This little-used technique involves pressing repeated reliefs into tin foil, then holding the canals open with a filler from behind, and painting the front of the surface. One often thinks of applying gold leaf to paintings, but rarely of applying other kinds of sheet metal.
Especially fascinating are the extensive essays about the iconography for each entry, which include reproductions of comparative images. The discussion on the iconography of the Last Judgment surrounding the panel of that subject made in the first quarter of the fifteenth century is one of the finest and most thorough treatments of the subject I know, with 15 comparative images and a solid overview of the topic. Finally, readers will be pleased that the authors have transcribed all relevant archival documents in the appendix. The book is impressive and useful.
The authors and editors of these three volumes are to be commended for their commitment to the physical object and to technical analysis. I would recommend to anyone teaching a course on Early Netherlandish Painting to assign selections from these volumes. They fill in valuable ideas and objects missing from available textbooks, which have dismissed pre-Eyckian painting, as well as paintings without identifiable names.
University of St. Andrews