Last fall, as part of a year-long celebration, “Mechelen 2005: City in Female Hands,” the city of Mechelen mounted a major exhibition, “Dames met Klasse: Margareta van York en Margareta van Oostenrijk,” of which the above book is the English catalogue. This ambitious undertaking included more than 150 objects in all media, from playing cards to prayer nuts, pomanders to chasubles, with books, manuscripts, sculpture, paintings, tapestries, game boards, and a stuffed quetzal bird from Central America. The catalogue is equally rich and complex, with sixteen essays and 40 authors. And then there was the advance buzz that the installation had been designed by the celebrated, if controversial, London-based architect, Zaha Hadid. In the end, neither the exhibition, catalogue or design controversy, disappointed.
Margaret of York, sister of English Kings Edward IV and Richard III and wife of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and her goddaughter, Margaret of Austria, daughter of Emperor Maximilian I Habsburg and Charles V’s “good aunt and more than mother,” were each widowed young in life and each settled in Mechelen soon afterwards (1477-1503 and 1506-1530, respectively). They established the city as their residence, seat of power, and sphere of influence. Of the two, Margaret of Austria was by far the more active and important as a patron and collector of art, and we are further fortunate to have detailed inventories of her collection. It is no surprise that the majority of the exhibition focused on her.
The catalogue divides the material into five broad themes, in each case introduced by three or four essays and followed by the entries. The categories are: Mechelen, city in female hands; family, dynasty, and diplomacy; female concerns and gender; religion and literary culture; and collecting and the wonders of the world. The choice of objects was assisted, it appears, by two other guiding principles: to maximize the media and genre mix in order to evoke the heterogeneous nature of the collecting and patronage; and to represent (as possible) actual work owned by the women, or close representatives, or other work by the artists. In all these respects the show and catalogue were successful.
For Margaret of York, several historical objects were included, such as her crown and a letter to the Mechelen aldermen (cat. 3, 5), but the main emphasis was upon devotional manuscripts or printed books commissioned by or associated with her, including a translation of Boëthius (cat. 79) and Caxton’s early, printed History of Troy (1473-74), translated into English at her request (cat. 80). The masterpiece of her manuscript collection, The Visions of Tondal (Los Angeles, Getty Museum), was apparently intended but could not be included, and is represented by a catalogue entry only (cat. 84). Other sumptuous manuscripts done for her, especially ones in Brussels and Oxford, are reproduced and discussed in the essays.
The diversity and range of Margaret of Austria’s visual interests, on the other hand, and proofs of her discernment, were evident throughout, as a few selected examples will suggest. Included in the exhibit was her exquisite carved boxwood initial “M,” with scenes of St. Margaret (cat. 55); a small, enclosed garden combining carved and polychromed female saints, set amidst silk-thread flowers and plants made by nuns, the latter handwork characteristic of Mechelen (cat. 116); an autograph manuscript of Jean Lemaire de Belges’ La Couronne margaritique, written shortly after the 1504 death of Philibert II of Savoy, Margaret’s second husband, to console the distraught widow (cat. 85); circular, wooden game pieces with carved portraits, representing in equal numbers contemporary women rulers and men (cat. 31); a copy of the Shroud of Turin, which Margaret owned (cat. 106); and manuscript folios from the Complainte de Marguerite d’Autriche, a poetic love lament she is believed to have composed (cat. 87). Even her lost copy of the Spinario was nicely evoked by Gossaert’s Roman sketchbook drawing of the same (cat. 92).
Gossaert, indeed, was one of the many prominent artists that Margaret famously employed, either with court positions or for specific commissions. Among the others were Bernard van Orley, Jan Mostaert, Michel Sittow, the miniaturist Gerard Horenbout, Conrad Meit, Jan Vermeyen and Jacopo de’ Barberi. All but the last were well represented in the exhibit, in particular Meit, with six pieces (cat. 118-123). Since the work he did at her mortuary complex in the monastery of Brou is arguably the most important work she sponsored, this was a sensible substitute for the inability to include anything from Brou. Another key figure, Van Orley, was happily represented by more than his familiar portrait of her, dressed in “widow’s weeds,” in a painting serially produced in nine copies for her to give as gifts (cat. 18-19). There were also religious paintings by him (cat. 56, 104) and, most notably, his stunning Garden of Gethsemane tapestry, one of four Passion pieces Van Orley designed for Margaret that were woven in Brussels with gold- and silver-silk threads (cat. 105). She also owned important works by deceased artists and living ones not in her employ – Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling, Juan de Flandes, Joos van Cleve, Bosch (his St. Anthony hung in her bedroom: cat. 117) -, and, most significantly, two paintings by Jan van Eyck. Neither work was in the show. The intent had been to include the Madonna by the Fountain(Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum), but in the end it appeared only in the catalogue (cat. 99); and, unsurprisingly, the Arnolfini Double Portrait(London, National Gallery), bequeathed to her by Diego de Guevara, was not exhibited. Interestingly, Margaret also owned another husband-wife double portrait – the 1496 Master of Frankfurt panel in Antwerp (Koninklijk Museum) -, but it too was not exhibited.
The small painting that generated big excitement was Jan Mostaert’s Portrait of a Black African Gentleman (cat. 135), recently acquired by the Rijksmuseum. It is the earliest known European portrait painting of a black African. It dates to the 1520s, perhaps after 1526, and while it does not have a specific connection with Margaret, Mostaert was in her employ, and African slaves, common at Charles V’s court, may have accompanied emissaries to Mechelen. Two new studies of this important work, in the 2005 Rijksmuseum Bulletin (53: pp. 381-433), appeared too late for the catalogue. The article by Jan Piet Filedt Kok and Marieke de Winkel discusses dating and dress, relating the sitter’s costume to European court culture; and the article by Ernst van den Boogaart marshals evidence that the subject might be Charles V’s bodyguard, Christophle le More.
The exhibition organizers and writers wisely examined the two Margarets through a variety of lenses: dynastic politics, gendered activities, devotional practices, and artistic and cultural impact. The catalogue essays effectively illuminate these issues plus other related ones, such as the culture of gift giving, the collecting results of the Spanish conquest of the New World, and the contrasting temperaments of the two women as bibliophiles. What was missing, not from the catalogue but curiously from the exhibition, was a greater sense of place, of the physical presence of Mechelen in all this. The exhibition did not, for example, utilize large photomurals of the two residences, the Court of Cambrai and the Court of Savoy, to establish settings, or include Margaret’s inventories as a guide to her placement of key works. The only nod in this direction was several nineteenth-century watercolors of her palace and an eighteenth-century floor plan (cat. 28-29).
At the Lamot, a handsome conference and cultural center in the heart of the old town, refashioned out of a former brewery, one entered the exhibit from the main lobby by ascending a narrow, enclosed stairwell, to emerge on an upper floor into the near-total darkness of the exhibition. Its space was lit only by dramatic spotlighting and by the illumination of display cases. Partitions dividing the space were often canted, and traffic pathways irregularly composed. The whole experience, of starting at one point and following a winding, narrow passageway into a dark, uncertain reality, resembled nothing so much as a kind of postmodern labyrinth. Hadid’s design drew attention to its own intentionality, of a deliberately novel space and its theatrical presentations, at the expense of normal traffic flow and the visibility of objects. The intense spotlighting on Meit’s marble Madonna and Child(cat. 122), for example, cast deep, black shadows that obliterated parts of the surface and distorted the sculpture’s volumes, while the bright lights on Van Orley’s Gethsemane tapestry (cat. 105) caused the gold and silver threads to visually “pop,” an experience utterly alien to the candlelight and daylight viewings of Margaret’s day.
Even these contemporary excesses, however, could not diminish the substantial achievements of the exhibit. The organizers and authors, most of all, Dagmar Eichberger, are to be congratulated on an exhibition that illuminated the two Margarets from so many useful perspectives; that brought together such a varied, representative, and beautiful grouping of works; and that resulted in a catalogue as exemplary in its scholarship and production values as this one is.