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The Incomparable Fifteenth Century Artists of Bruges – Wednesday 2nd November 2016

Elsa Schiaparelli

Those of us who attended the Special Interest Day at the Great Hospital were rewarded with a trinitarian treat of words and images. The Rt Revd Christopher Herbert presented us with three quite splendid lectures on the 'Incomparable 15th century Artists of Bruges'.

In his first lecture, romantically entitled 'Bankers, Burgundy and Pirates', he introduced us to the political, economic and religious background in which the great artists of the Northern Renaissance worked. With his usual mix of humour, insight and knowledge, he painted with broad brush strokes a picture of Bruges in the 15th century – a city of great wealth and prosperity, whose economic and social life was dominated by powerful guilds, merchants and bankers; whose political life was dominated by the Dukes of Burgundy who under Philip the Good had moved their capital from Dijon to Bruges; and whose cultural life was dominated by the church and the deeply held religious beliefs of the day which centred on the celebration of the Mass.

These were the circumstances which together encouraged and influenced the work of the great 15th century artists in and around Bruges. Rich patrons, like the Dukes of Burgundy and successful bankers like Tommaso Portinari, and Nicholas Rolin commissioned paintings for their guild chapels and churches as well as for their own devotional 'Book of Hours'. Many fine altar pieces were painted together with an increasing number of portraits, some of which were unfortunately lost to unscrupulous sea pirates on their journey to foreign ports. Artists like Jan van Eyck, Rogier Van de Weyden, Hans Memling, Van de Goes and Robert Campin (Van de Weyden's tutor), pioneered new techniques with oil paints and fine brushwork to bring about a new realism in their work – a new way of looking at the world, which differed from their Italian Renaissance colleagues.

In the following two lectures, Christopher examined in detail the way in which these artists, especially Jan van Eyck and Rogier Van de Weyden, were breaking new ground with their use of colour, symbols, realism and landscape. In particular, we studied at some length Jan van Eyck's fine Ghent Altarpiece 'Adoration of the Mystic Lamb', his 'Madonna with Canon van der Paele', and the 'Madonna of Chancellor Rolin' And in the last lecture of the day, among other things, we were treated to a masterful exposition of Rogier Van de Weyden's 'Descent from the Cross', which is arguably the finest of all the Flemish religious paintings.
This was a day well spent. - spent in the company of a stimulating lecturer, surrounded by copies of great paintings, and in the appropriate historic setting of the Great Hospital which is not unlike that of 15th century Bruges where these incomparable Northern Renaissance artists lived and worked. And it was a good lunch!

Colin Way

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