Made in Flanders: The Master of the Ghent Privileges and Manuscript Painting in the Southern Netherlands in the Time of Philip the Good & Painting on Light: Drawings and Stained Glass in the Age of Durer and Holbein. (Reviews).
(Ars Nova: Studies in Late Medieval and Renaissance Northern Painting and Illumination.)
Turnhout: Brepols, 2000. 24 color pls. + 234 b/w figs. + 104 b/w illus. + 499 pp. Euro 136. ISBN: 2-503-50878-2.
Barbara Butts and Lee Hendrix, Painting on Light: Drawings and Stained Glass in the Age of Durer and Holbein.
Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 2000. xiii + 186 color illus. + 119 b/w illus. + 330 pp. $125. ISBN: 0-89236-578-1.
These books are lavish presentations of material that is usually marginalized in the study of northern Renaissance art: mid-fifteenth-century Flemish manuscript illumination done after the establishment of the great early Netherlandish panel painting tradition (exemplified by the work of Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin, and Roger van der Weyden); and stained glass paintings and drawings done during the height of late fifteenth-and early sixteenth-century Germany Renaissance painting and drawing (the era of Albrecht Durer, Matthias Grunewald and Hans Holbein). Both books make an interesting case for paying more attention to these often overlooked endeavors.
Gregory Clark's work is a gold mine for the fifteenth-century manuscript specialist. He has produced a lengthy catalog of 29 codices, single leaves, and cuttings all now thought to have originated in the workshops of two closely related mid-fifteenth-century Flemish illuminators. He provides copious reproductions of their pages. His entries include complete tables of the manuscripts' texts and miniatures. He also includes elaborate appendices with tables of strictly regional religious feasts found in Flemish manuscripts at this time. This sort of exhaustive documentation helps him locate the production of the manuscripts he is studying in the dioceses of Tournai and Cambrai between the years 1440 and 1460. The chief manuscript in this group is a richly decorated copy of the Statues and Privileges of Ghent and Flanders made for Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (Vienna, Osterreichische Bibliothek, cod. 2583). The other manuscripts assembled here consist primarily of 22 Books of Hours filled with a traditional selection of scenes from Christ's life and images of the saints.
Most of Clark's text is consumed with a treatment of problems in attribution and chronology. He acknowledges that the execution of these manuscripts is often "perfunctory" (111) or "routine" (114). Many images or compositions are recycled from manuscript to manuscript (94). There is often a lack of consistent finish (9, 18, etc.). After all, he stresses, the codices he is discussing are the products of a team of artisans, rather than works exhibiting the hand of a single master. Staffing such ateliers was very fluid, and it is therefore impossible to identify the hands of individual craftspersons in these manuscripts (124). Still, Clark agrees with another scholar who states that we need to establish "how many minds inspired" these various artisans' hands (136). Thus he tries valiantly to stretch the connoisseurial method to apply to what he terms "stylistically evolving ateliers" (139), ateliers with something like an artistic personality that goes through various stages of development. To the non-specialist such exercises may seem to be extremely circumstantial -- if not far-fetched.
They are doubly curious in this case in light of the fact that specialists have for many years labeled this group of manuscripts with less-than-winning epithets -- "inferior," "not of the highest rank," "imperfect," full of "obvious weaknesses," "old-fashioned," and "expressionless," are some of the earlier judgments that Clark records (145-6). Other artists and their ateliers from this time in Flanders are routinely highly praised, for instance Jean le Tavernier, Simon Marmion, and the Girart de Roussillon Master. When Clark finally faces the history of scholarly censure of his manuscript group (chapter 6, 145-58), he offers a novel defense for his artists. Clark believes that the miniatures produced under the direction of the Master of the Ghent Privileges "seem to capture abstract but universal ideas that escape other painters (146). This painter "fashions stylized declarations of power and authority that consciously or unconsciously perpetuate a venerable medieval tradition" (147), to some extent based on tapestries. This is the judgment that Clark applies to the master's images of court life and historical battles; he goes on to claim that "there can be no doubt that those same stylistic traits [flattened compositions; stylized, generic portrayals of individuals, and so on] also assure the otherworldly distance and contemplative efficacy of (the master's) devotional images" (150).
Clark believes that he finds in Duke Philip's patronage of manuscript illumination a hesitancy to commission more fully naturalistic devotional images in the style, say, of the duke's favorite court painter, Jan van Eyck. Religious art had been "determinedly hieratic, stylized and 'non-naturalistic' for almost a thousand years" (155), a judgment that leads Clark to speculate that the duke might have doubted the spiritual efficacy of the ars nova. In his brief comments on this intriguing issue, Clark seems remarkably unaware of the trend in northern Renaissance scholarship over the last 20 years to understand fifteenth-century painted realism as a positive aid to empathetic lay religious devotion. He quotes Erwin Panofsky's 1953 work approvingly to the effect that the new realism needed some old medieval elements (like symbolism) in order to justify its existence (155). Further discussion of the whole issue of a patron's artistic taste might have been more to the point here. Clearly Philip the Good and other a ristocrats had a taste for both new- and old-fashioned art, at different times and places, in different contexts. Perhaps the urban middle class was the first social group to take up wholeheartedly the new hyper-realistic, descriptive style of artists like Robert Campin? Whatever the case, the situation was more complex than Clark suggests. He has certainly raised an important and far-reaching question.
Barbara Butts and Lee Hendrix successfully demonstrate that stained glass, in both its design and execution, played an important and quite interesting role in late fifteenth and early sixteenth-century south German artistic culture. One of the main ways that they accomplish this task is by focusing on designs made by major name artists, such as Albrecht Durer, Hans Holbein, Hans Baldung, and Albrecht Altdorfer. These artists themselves never painted on glass; they were prohibited from doing this by guild regulation (only those artisans who had specifically been trained to paint on glass could do so) (7). All stained glass designs were executed in workshop settings (similar to manuscript illuminations) where style and technical finish became somewhat more difficult to define. At least half of a stained glass artisan's designs were produced in-house, not farmed out to other (famous) painters (6). In some ways, it is a pity that Butts and Hendrix did not include more prominent examples of designs by lesser-known or anonymous craftspeople. One would like to know if Albrecht Durer's designs for stained glass really were some of the best. They are certainly reminiscent of his designs for paintings and prints; but does that mean they were the best models for stained glass?
This question touches on the major problem I find in this book. None of the authors attempt to establish what one might call an independent stained glass aesthetic - what did it consist of? where did it come from? how did it grow or develop? The emphasis throughout this text is on imitation and derivation. Durer challenges the glass painters to imitate the swelling lines of his prints and drawings, or the revolutionary corporeality of his figure style (10). Baldung tries to introduce nuanced modeling in order to rival panel painting (12). Large window ensembles are meant to reproduce and compete with richly carved, polychromed gilt-winged altarpieces (18). It is stated that "stained glass copied the formal vocabulary and subject matter of altarpieces, the principal type of sacred decoration" (30). When viewed from such an angle it is little wonder that much stained glass discussed here is termed "eclectic" (40).
To me the most successful examples of stained glass in this book are not those that imitate paintings or sculpture but those that seem more aesthetically distinctive, even unique - grisaille or semi-grisaille sketches on clear glass with yellow stained details, windows with a few colored panes for accent, coats of arms with decorative borders that again employ strong, simple, and carefully placed color areas. Stained glass artists are simply incapable of imitating the coloristic richness and modeling of certain areas of panel paintings. A blue robe in a panel painting may change tone and hue repeatedly. In a glass painting it is simply a piece of blue glass surrounded by a dark leaden frame. The effect is invariably disappointing if thought of primarily as an imitation of a panel painting. Art historians speak quite glowingly about the way Albrecht Durer developed a "graphic aesthetic" for his prints, such that contemporaries realized that the addition of color would ruin the design. In a similar vein, I wish that these authors had explored the notion that there might be a distinctive use of both color and line in the stained glass production of this time, such that constant comparison with other art work in other media would prove unnecessary perhaps even misleading.
There is much to praise about this book overall. It is absolutely packed with fascinating and neglected art and history. There are essays by various authors on the general history of stained glass at this time, on monumental stained glass especially in churches (cut short by the advent of the Reformation), on civic stained glass donations (primarily elaborate coats of arms), and on technical and conservation problems. Since this book served as the catalog of a major exhibition, there are also 152 detailed entries on 88 drawings and 64 stained glass panels. Thirty-two of the drawings have associated glass paintings which are included in the exhibition or well illustrated in the catalog, so that one can repeatedly study the transformation that occurs from drawing to glass.
The catalog section of the book includes lengthy and appropriate artists' biographies and detailed descriptions and analyses of all works. It is profusely illustrated with many color reproductions throughout. The range of works, subject matter, intended locations, and varied use of both drawn and stained glass media is impressive. There are many images of saints and coats of arms, secular scenes meant for castles and scholars' studies, cycles of the months and the mechanical arts - all well explained and historically contextualized. There are clever trefoil and quatrefoil designs that show the draughtsmen dealing with unusual compositional problems. As the authors rightly remark, some of the drawings are so elaborate that they take on a life of their own; perhaps the artist never intended that they be turned into glass paintings (cat. 124). Here again the question of a "stained glass aesthetic" might have been brought to the fore. The Niklaus Manuel Deutsch drawing, Allegory of a Warrior Who Becomes a Beggar (cat. 124, 264-6), shows a man standing in an arch (doorway or window jam), one side of him elaborately got up as a mercenary, the other in the rags and tatters of a homeless individual. The whole work is subtly colored and modeled. This is a type of composition (with an arch motif) that panel painters in the fifteenth century had adopted in order to rival and mimic windows and sculpted portals. Now glass designers have taken it back and used it sometimes, as here, for an invention that stands on its own as a work of art - but still alludes to a possible monumental glass product. Clearly this reinforces these authors' claim that such stained glass art and design is great but little-known material deserving to be brought to both the specialist's and non-specialist's eye. Hopefully this beautiful and learned book will do just that.