Within a single generation early in the fifteenth century, three Flemish artists gave final, consummate expression to the Gothic spirit. …
For anyone trying to tell the history of art as a continuous development , the fifteenth century always appears as a slight embarassment. Up until then the story can be followed along a reasonably straight path, but with the year 1400 the narrator comes upon a bifurcation. The stylistic and ideational split between the art of Italy and that of the north may not be as wide as it seems, but it is nevertheless too wide to straddle gracefully.
While the Renaissance flared up and spread like a grass fire in Italy, a triumvirate of Flemish artists brought medieval painting to its apogee. The birth dates of these three- the master of Flémalle, Jan van Eyck, and Rogier van der Weyden- occured within a period of less than twenty years and can be averaged out to the year 1388. This is the same year , granting a few uncertainties, as the average birth date of Donatello, Masaccio and Brunelleschi, the epochal Florentine triumvirate of sculptor-painter-architect. Yet, as the initiators of Renaissance art, the Italians divided the Age of Faith from modern times, and it is easier to think of them as men who followed the Flemish masters by a century than as their contemporaries. In spite of re-evaluations and indisputable demonstrations showing that northern and southern Europe in the fifteenth century were closely allied intellectually, we still have to combat a tendency to regard the art of the north as a beautiful medieval tag-end, a last gasp rather than as a consummation.
In fact, there was a great deal of give and take between north and south, with more influence flowing down from the innovational “Gothic” north to the innovational “Renaissance” south than in the other direction. The very term “Renaissance” is a misnomer, or at least an exaggeration. As the established label for the early Italian development, it had a great deal to do with the persistence of an old idea that once placed even the Gothic cathedral , that most luminous expression of logic and revelation, within something miscalled the Dark Ages.
“Redirection” would be a better term than “Renaissance”, which holds only in quattrocento Italy, if anwhere, and even there holds only with special reference to enthusiasms that brought about a resuscitation of the forms of classical antiquity. Art and learning hardly needed to be reborn, especially in the north where they had been flourishing for centuries.
If the art of the north seems to have remained Gothic in spirit during the first seventy-five years of the Renaissance adventure, this was not a matter of ignorance or incapacity on the part of the artists; it was a matter of stylistic choice. Rogier van der Weyden, the youngest of the Flemish triumvirate, made the choice most deliberately.
The triumph of Flemish genius, so sudden, came in part as the result of a French disaster- the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Until then the most alert and talented young Netherlandish artists had been lured away from home by Paris, Bourges, and Dijon, the seats of the great schools of manuscript illumination and of the wealthiest feudal patrons. But with Agincourt, and Philip the Good’s withdrawal of his sumptuous court from Burgundy to Flanders, shortly thereafter, expatriation lost its point. The best commissions could be found at home.
This geographical shift would have been of no importance had it not involved more than the simple transplantation of the centers of production. What was important was that talent changed its direction of expression in response to locale, and the locale was now bourgeois rather than princely. In france, the artists had naturally been drawn into the hyperrefined brilliance and sweet s
stications of that courtly manner called the International Style. But now, in addition to serving a weakened aristocracy, the artists found patrons among the bankers and merchants who had become the true rulers of the wealthiest society in Europe. A degree of healthy homeliness became a tolerable ingredient of painting in this tough-minded, practical society.
But this is a bit of an exaggeration in both directions. The new society was not homely. If it was bourgeois, it was not provincial. Representatives of the great banking and merchandising firms went back and forth across all Europe , and foreign houses maintained their commercial ambassadors in the Low Countries. This was cosmopolitanism of a new kind, and was so conducive to growth, variety, and experiment that any suspicion of provincialism might better be attached to the preciously cultivated, closed society of the feudal courts.
Campin was content to develop his theme through the use of symbols as a form of literary exposition, leaving aside any creative emotional interpretation, a method more acceptable to his contemporaries and more apparent to them than to us. The lillies in the jug represent purity, their white petals enclose a golden heart representing Christ in her womb; the seven rays of light that enter through one of the circular windows represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; the polished vessel at the upper left symbolizes Mary as “the vessel most clean” The extinguished candle on the table , its wick still smoking, is a bit of a puzzler. Perhaps, lit, it symbolized the Divine Light, and its extinguishment at the moment of the Annunciation meant that God, in the person of man, had become flesh.