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.

[51] Bradley, Dict. of Miniaturists, ii. 87.

The evangelist portraits are dignified and saintly, recalling the earliest work of the Byzantine school and that of the catacombs. Draperies and other details are heavy, dull, and ill drawn. In short, the work is of the same class as the early Carolingian. The blue, red, green, and gold of the borders, etc., have all kept their brilliancy.[52] It is somewhat curious that the Van Eycks, the founders of Flemish painting, were natives of this little town—then, doubtless, pretty and rural, now a busy place of breweries, oil-factories, tanneries, and other fragrant nuisances. Some miles further northward lie Deventer and Zwolle and Kempen, the land of the Brothers of the Pen, and of the immortal Thomas à Kempis. There is a style of calligraphic ornament deriving its origin from these Northern Hollandish foundations such as Zwolle, which is confined almost entirely to the painting of the initial letters and the decorating of the borders with flourished scrolls of penwork very neatly drawn and terminating in equally neat but extremely fanciful flowers finely painted. It seems to have been brought at some time from the neighbourhood of Milan, where a similar kind of initial and exceedingly neat penmanship also is found in the choir books. Many South German choir books are similarly ornamented, so that it is not easy to say at once where the work was done. The Dutch illuminators, however, may usually be recognised by the Netherlandish character of the miniatures combined with neat and sometimes rigidly careful penmanship in the scrolls and tendrils and a hardness in the outline of the flowers. Sometimes the large initials are entirely produced by the pen, the labyrinthine patterns in blue or vermilion being filled in with circlets, loops, and other designs with infinite patience and excellent effect. Some of the border scrolls are exceedingly pretty, and the borders differ from Flemish in mixing natural flowers painted in thin water-colours with the more conventional flowers painted with a different medium, not in the later Flemish manner where the flowers are frankly direct imitations of nature, and painted in the same medium as the rest of the illumination.

[52] See Messager des Sciences, etc., 110, 1858, and Deshaines, L'Art Chrétien en Flandre, 34 (Douai, 1860, 8°).

After the Maas-Eyck Evangeliary the work of these northern foundations may well reckon either with the French or German schools until the fifteenth century. Where otherwise they are not distinguishable, the Netherlandish miniatures are usually such as prefer plain burnished gold backgrounds to diapered ones, or have a plain deep blue paled towards the horizon, and lastly replace the background by a natural, or what was intended to be a natural, landscape. As a test between French or German influence generally, the use of green shows the latter, that of blue the former. Not that this was any æsthetic point of difference in taste, but somehow the Germans had the green paint when the French had not, and so they used it. It is an open question whether Flanders or Italy first introduced the landscape background, but Flemish artists were so numerous, so ubiquitous, that we can hardly say where they were not at work—in France, Italy, or Spain. Plenty of so-called Spanish illumination is really the work of Flemish craftsmen. This was largely owing to the political conditions of the times. The Dukes of Burgundy and the Austrian Archdukes both ruled over Flemish municipalities, and employed the gildmen as their household “enlumineurs.” And, of course, the success of the Van Eycks, Rogier van der Weide (de la Pasture), Derrick Bonts, and Hans Memling, stirred up the spirit of rivalry among the illuminators. They all worked in the same minutely, careful manner, and one could almost take a corporal oath on the identity of illuminations and panels which are really the work of different artists. Even yet the illuminations of the Grimani Breviary are attributed in part to Hans Memling—and no wonder! Only the best qualified judges can distinguish them. It is known that Gerard David of Oudewater, in Holland, a master painter, belonged also to the gild of miniaturists. But no miniatures are known to be from the hands of either Ian, or Hubert, or Marguerite van Eyck, or Hans Memling. The supposed identifications are merely guesses. But while this is so there is still no lack of illuminators, not to mention the illustrious few who were employed by the brothers of Charles V., King of France; and when we come to the days of his grandson, Philip of Burgundy (1419-67), we might name quite a crowd of distinguished illuminators. From 1422 to 1425 Ian van Eyck was “varlet de chamber” to Duke John of Bavaria, first bishop of Liége, and Regent of Luxembourg, Holland, and Brabant. In 1425 he passed into the service of Philip. He died in 1440. In court service there were besides, Jean de Bruges, David Aubert, Jean Mielot, Jean Wanguelin, Loyset Lyeder, and others connected more or less closely with the Maas valley and the province of Limburg. This valley seems to have been the cradle of Netherlandish miniature art. It is from this neighbourhood that Paris was supplied with craftsmen in the days of the brilliant if reckless administration of the uncles of Philip the Good. There were schools of illuminating artists in Maestricht and Liége, and within a very brief period the style of the Netherlander surpassed that of all competitors for facility, clearness, and realism. A marked feature in this mastery is the free use of architectural and sculptural design. All Gothic draperies are in some degree sculpturesque, and in miniatures we find sculpture to be the ruling principle. Perhaps it was the practice of uniting the crafts of painter and “imagier” in one person that fostered this peculiarity. But certain it is that Netherlandish illumination, in its border foliages, after the taste for the larger vine and acanthus leaf had superseded the ivy, the drawing is studiously sculpturesque. Many of the Gantois borders are like undercut wood carvings. Even as to colour we find either the gilded wood brown or the stone grey, quite as frequently as gayer colours, and much more so than any natural green. The after-fashion for grisailles or camaieu gris has reference probably rather to stained glass than to carving. Before the fifteenth century we do not often meet with individual illuminators by name, but in the Limburg Chronicle under 1380 is this entry: “There was at this time in Cologne a celebrated painter (he was probably a native of Herle in Limburg), the like of whom was not in the whole of Christendom,” and more to his praise. His name was Wilhelm. In the municipal expense book, under 1370-90, page 12, is written, “To Master Wilhelm for painting the Oath Book, 9 marks.” The Oath Book still exists, but unfortunately the miniature has been cut out.[53]

[53] Woltmann, Hist. of Painting, Eng. transl., i. p. 412.

Of course, it may be expected that some of the best examples of Netherlandish illumination are to be found in the Royal Library at Brussels. The Bibliothéque de Bourgogne, as it is called, contains, indeed, a great number of them. Some, of course, may be classed as Burgundian. There are, for instance, the grand “Chroniques de Hainaut” in three immense folio volumes, written from 1446 to 1449 (Nos. 9242-4). Also Jean Mansel's “Fleur des Histoires” in three grand folios (Nos. 9231-3), written about 1475. The frontispiece to the “Chroniques” shows the Duke Philip with his son the Count of Charolais receiving the work from the author, perhaps the best illumination in all three volumes.

Another (9245), the Book of the Seven Sages of Rome, is an example of the last quarter of the fourteenth century. Still another (9246), the History of St. Graal, or of the Round Table, is dated 1480. A Missal and Pontifical (9216, 9217) shows miniatures dating about 1475.

But other public libraries also possess admirable examples. The Imperial Library at Vienna possesses a most masterly production in the fragments of a folio Chronicle of Jerusalem (No. 2533), in which both figures and architectural details are most delicately and minutely finished, so that the miniatures form a most valuable treasury of costumes, armour, and architecture, correctly drawn and exquisitely painted. The figure of Baldwin, King of Jerusalem, shows the pointed toes which Anne of Bohemia is said to have introduced into England. At Vienna, also, is the richly illuminated History of Gérard de Roussillon in French (No. 2549). At Paris we find the “Champion des Dames” (No. 12476). Round the first miniature in this MS. are splendidly emblazoned the armorials of the various countries and cities of his dominions—Burgundy, Brabant, Flanders, Franche-Comté, Holland, Namur, Lower Lorraine, Luxembourg, Artois, Hainaut, Zealand, Friesland, Malines, and Salins. On either side are scenes from the story, and beneath a symbolical crown is the motto of Philip's grandfather, Philip le Hardi, aultre n'aray. The same motto appears in the Chronicle of Jerusalem at Vienna, and on the velvet of the daïs of Isabella of Portugal, Philip's third consort.

It may be interesting to note, as a means of distinguishing these Burgundian princes or their MSS., that the arms of Philip II. the Good differ from those of his father, during the latter's lifetime, by having in chief a label of three points, and from those of his grandfather, Philip the Bold, by having an inescutcheon of pretence on the centre of the arms of Margaret de Maele, first assumed by his father, John the Fearless, that is, “or, a lion rpt. sa; for Flanders.” As we have just said, many of the MSS. claimed as Netherlandish may be classed as Burgundian. The difference lies mainly in the miniatures. Where the latter are manifestly French with the mixed Brugeois borders, they may pass as Burgundian; but with similar borders yet distinguishably Netherlandish, that is, broad-nosed, square-jawed, and excited faces as compared with the finer features and placid expression of the French artists, the work may still be Burgundian, but it will be also Netherlandish. The individuality of Netherlandish illumination above every other quality establishes its identity. Look at the expression of the onlookers in a Crucifixion, or a Christ before Pilate, or a Stoning of St. Stephen—the diabolical ferocity, the fiendish earnestness, the downright intentional ugliness put on some of the characters are in direct contrast to the sweet indifference, the calm complaisance, and blank unconcern of a crowd as shown in similar scenes by French illuminators.

Brit. Mus. Add. MS. 17280. fol. 21
Brit. Mus. Harl. MS. 4375, fol. 68

We have seen something of the earlier kind of Netherlandish MSS. in those already referred to. It now remains to take a rapid glance at a few of the later ones, and here the difficulty is that of selection.

In 1484 Gerard David appears on the list of illuminators of Bruges,[54] and it appears that he, and not Hans Memling, was the painter of those marvellous miniatures in the Grimani Breviary at Venice usually attributed to the latter, and therefore may be considered as one of the founders of the school of Bruges, or at least of the later style that may be referred to the Grimani Breviary as its most perfect example. Executed in much the same manner is a Book of Offices in the British Museum, containing portraits of Philip the Fair and his wife, the unhappy Juana la Loca, son and daughter-in-law of the Emperor Maximilian. Similar, again, are the “Offices of the Elector, Albert of Brandenburg,” possibly the work of the same artists who produced the Grimani Breviary. There are also some fragments in a guard-book in the British Museum (Add. 24098), which may compare with any of the preceding examples. But perhaps to many book-lovers no better specimen of the highest class of Netherlandish art could be more welcome or more interesting than the celebrated copy of the “Roman de la Rose,” also in our great national collection (Harl. 4425). This justly famous MS. is a real masterpiece in every department, whether we consider the expression in its miniatures or the consummate technical skill displayed in the drawing and colour of the borders. These secondary embellishments consist of fruit, flowers, birds, beetles, and butterflies. But, of course, the great interest of this book lies in its miniatures, scenes from the poet's allegory, and in the little statuesque figures of the various characters in the poem.

[54] Cf. his “Judgement of Cambyses” in the museum at Bruges.

Two marvellous little volumes there are in the National Museum at Munich (861-2) which are surely unapproachable. One of the borders in 861 consists of the eyes of peacock feathers so absolutely perfect that we can only wonder at its rainbow hues and pearly sheen of colour. Something similar to it exists in a fragment (No. 4461) in the Victoria and Albert Museum at South Kensington. The “Isabella Breviary” of the British Museum (Add. 18851) ought not to pass unmentioned, but space forbids us to add more on this inexhaustible topic. There is, however, the class of work alluded to early in the chapter, and in that on French work, which must be at least mentioned. We refer to what the Italians call chiaroscuro and the French grisaille; i.e. painting executed in tones of grey, in which the lights are given in white or gold and the backgrounds in rich blue. Occasionally the draperies and ornaments also are touched with gold, and the flesh tints as in life. Grisaille is not limited to Netherlandish illuminations. We find it both in French and Italian, but perhaps it is among the Netherlandish books we meet with it most frequently. Several examples are to be seen in the Royal Library at Brussels, and there is at least one in the British Museum (Add. 24189).