What is meant by the Netherlands—Early realism and study of nature—Combination of symbolism with imitation—Anachronism in design—The value of the pictorial methods of the old illuminators—The oldest Netherlandish MS.—Harlinda and Renilda—The nunnery at Maas-Eyck—Description of the MS.—Thomas à Kempis—The school of Zwolle—Character of the work—The use of green landscape backgrounds—The Dukes of Burgundy—Netherlandish artists—No miniatures of the Van Eycks or Memling known to exist—Schools of Bruges, Ghent, Liége, etc.—Brussels Library—Splendid Netherlandish MSS. at Vienna—Gerard David and the Grimani Breviary—British Museum—“Romance of the Rose”—“Isabella” Breviary—Grisailles.

In> speaking of the Netherlands we have to bear in mind that some portions of what are now called the Netherlands were once parts of Germany, while others were parts of France. In the thirteenth century Netherlandish art was simply a variety either of Northern German or Northern French. The earlier schools of Flanders and Hainaut, and perhaps of Brabant, belong rather to France, while Holland, Limburg, Luxembourg, and the Rhine districts were more inclined towards Germany. But as soon as the schools of Ghent and Bruges and other Burgundian centres began to assert their claims, it was speedily apparent that they had an individuality of their own. In no country had the study of nature a more direct influence on the character of illumination. The allegorical method which so long had characterised both French and German art was promptly abandoned, and direct realism both in figure and landscape became the prevailing characteristic. Symbolism, it is true, remained in the representation of cities and other generalities of pictorial composition, but the details were in all cases direct imitations of contemporary facts. Half a dozen soldiers or houses might indicate an army or a city, and even some particular army or city named in the text, but the individual soldiers, though representing the army of Alexander or Roland, would wear the equipment or armour of the artist's military acquaintances, or his overlord's own company. The city, whether Ghent or Bagdad, would consist of the same sort of houses peaked and parapeted, the same towers and pinnacles that the illuminator saw before him in his daily walks. His conception of a scene from Scripture history would probably be framed more or less upon the traditions of the schools transmitted from the Sphigmenou Manual or the master's portfolio of “schemes,” but while a prophet, an angel, or a divinity would wear ideal raiment, Abraham and Pharaoh would be arrayed in the costume of a contemporary burgomaster, and an almost contemporary French king. In one memorable instance, we are told, so realistic was the scene that Isaac was about to be despatched with a horse-pistol; and in another, representing the birth of Cain, Adam was bringing to the French tester bedside a supply of hot water from the kitchen boiler in a copper saucepan. This kind of anachronism, it is true, is to some degree chargeable on all early work; we see it among the early Italian painters no less frequently perhaps, but mostly accompanied with so much of allegory or imagination that we scarcely notice it, or if we do, we wink at it as part of the times of ignorance. It is really a mark of over-haste to be truthful, or at least to be understood, and at the worst it is no more than the natural rebound from the evil constraint of the old Byzantine tyranny over scheme and costume and invention. It is often truly diverting in its very insouciance. But its priceless value to us—and here the same remark applies to all styles of pictorial art before the fifteenth century—is the ocular record of dress, architecture, implements of peace and war, incidents of daily life, etc., for which no Encyclopædia Britannica of verbal explanation could ever be more than the poorest makeshift. As we say, this same happy anachronism is common to other schools of illumination, and we cannot fail to notice it from Byzantium to Britain, but it is the intense realism of the Netherlands that forces it upon us so strongly that we are bound to speak of it.

The oldest notice of illuminated work in the Netherlands is in a Benedictine chronicle of the ninth century, where mention is made of two ladies, daughters of the Lord of Denain, named Harlinda and Renilda,[50] who were educated in the convent of Valenciennes. “In 714 they left their native province to found a monastery on the banks of the Maas—among the meadows of Alden and Maas-Eyck. They there consecrated their lives to the praise of God and the transcription of books, adorning them with precious pictures.”[51] About the year 1730 an Evangeliary of great age was discovered in the sacristy of the church by the Benedictine antiquary, Edmond Martène, which on good ground has been attributed to the two sisters. The MS. is still in existence, and was exhibited in Brussels in 1880. It is a small folio, and contains a great number of miniatures in the Carolingian or, perhaps more strictly, Franco-Saxon manner. On the first leaf is a Romanesque colonnade of arches surmounted by a larger one. Under the smaller arches are the figures of saints, demons, and monsters, and in the tympanum scrolls of foliage and birds. Between the columns are the reference numbers to the chapters.

[50] Or Relinda.