|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Aside from the churches scattered throughout Belgium, Bruges, Antwerp and Brussels are the places to study the Flemish masters. Bruges, the city of the earliest school, possesses little art other than her own. The Hospital of St. John, organized in the twelfth century and today active in caring for the sick, contains much of Memlinc's painting. The large triptych, the Marriage of St. Catherine, and the smaller one, a Pieta, were both designed as altarpieces. Nothing done by this artist attracts more interest today than his paintings for the Reliquary of St. Ursula. This is a miniature Gothic chapel, approximately three feet long, three feet high and a foot in width. That its pictures may be better under-stood, it is well to recall the St. Ursula story. Mediaeval legend related that Ursula was the only daughter of an early king of Britain. Her physical and spiritual beauty attracted many suitors, most importunate being the prince of the Picts. The Italian version, pictured by Carpaccio, says that Ursula made three conditions attendant upon her acceptance of this insistent lover : first that he and his friends should be baptized in the Christian faith, second that she should have ten virgins to accompany her, each of these and herself to have one thousand additional virgins as attendants; thirdly, that these eleven thousand should visit the holy shrines together before her marriage. We are filled with admiration for the resources of a prince who could facilitate the transportation of so many maidens over land and sea. After Ursula and her betrothed had received the blessing of the Pope, they started homeward, only to be attacked and killed by barbarians. St. Ursula be-came the patroness of all young girls and those who cared for and instructed them. The northern story differs some-what from this one. It sets forth that Ursula and a multitude of virgins who wished to accompany her, left the isle of Britain to escape the unceasing importunings of this northern prince. Except for his part, the subsequent story is much the same. The slanting roof of this tiny chapel, done in carven oak, has three medallions on either side representing the Coronation of the Virgin, glory of St. Ursula and four angels. On either side are three archings. They show the Ursula story thus: (1) The arrival of the pilgrims at Cologne, where they land; (2) Arrival at Basle, Ursula standing on the wharf as the rest disembark; (3) the Pope and his court at Rome, Ursula kneeling; (4) the Pope and his Cardinals accompanying the pilgrims back to Basle; (5) The attack on the virgins on the banks of the Rhine; (6) Martyrdom of St. Ursula, the Cologne Cathedral in the distance. One end of the chapel is adorned with a figure of the Madonna and Child, worshipped by two of the hospital nuns; the other end, by Ursula sheltering the ten virgins by her cloak. This delicate work, more wonderful when seen with a magnifying glass, was executed by Memlinc after 1480 when he had become familiar with the scenery of the Rhine. The variety of landscape and costume renders the whole peculiarly attractive. It stands today on a revolving table allowing one to inspect each picture in turn. Some of the bones of the saint are supposed to be pre-served within this reliquary.
The Academy of Bruges contains two of Jan Van Eyck's paintings: the Madonna of the Canon Van der Paele, and a portrait of his wife. The first was made as an altarpiece for the Cathedral of Bruges. Memlinc and David are also represented.
In 1488 David was commissioned to paint two pictures for the walls of the town-hall, these to be of such a nature that they would serve as reminders to officers of the trust imposed in them. David selected a story related by Herodotus and supposed to have happened during the occupation of Egypt by Cambyses. A judge was proved to have accepted a bribe and because of it rendered a false verdict. Cambyses, who delighted in cruelty, had him put to death and his skin thrown over the judge's chair—whereupon he appointed the son to succeed his father. David pictures the first part of the tale in the first panel, and terror is plainly depicted on the face of the accused man, while a bag of gold in the distance indicates the cause of his undoing. The second represents the son in his father's earlier seat, he himself—and with sufficient decision—refusing a proffered bribe. These are now in the Academy.
Bruges once boasted many choice paintings, but after her trade and, consequently, her wealth, were cut off, she was largely despoiled of them.
Antwerp is rich in paintings by Flemish masters. As early as 1663 Philip IV. issued letters patent permitting the Guild of St. Luke to establish an academy here after the manner of that of Paris. It first occupied an old hall, then a monastery. In 1817 the present Museum was founded to preserve such paintings as were returned to Belgium from the number purloined by Napoleon for France, and in 1890 its paintings and statuary were given their present abode in a new building of Greek Renaissance architecture. The vestibule of this building exemplifies in marble and paintings the development of the fine arts in Flanders.
Rubens' three hundredth anniversary was celebrated in 1877 and at that time an effort was made to collect as many of his paintings as possible for the Antwerp Gallery. One wing of the Museum is devoted largely to his pictures.
A copy of Van Eyck's Adoration of the Lamb is here. Roger Van der Weyden is represented by his "Seven Sacraments." Done in three panels, the center shows the Eucharist; on one side Baptism, Confirmation and Confession; on the other, Ordination, Marriage and Extreme Unction—these all shown in different parts of the church as taking place at the same time.
Memlinc's Christ and the angels and portrait of Nicolas Spinelli are here; also Massys' Entombment, done for the altar of the Chapel of the Joiners in Notre Dame, Antwerp. The center panel represents the Entombment ; the right panel, the Beheading of John the Baptist and the one to the left, the Martyrdom of St. John. The painter evinces in this picture the fact that the Renaissance had influenced him not at all. There is no beauty of the human form but in spite of the awkward, ungraceful attitudes, depth of grief is shown by the ones he makes us feel have "put on eternal mourning." Mabuse's Four Maries returning from the Tomb, Ecce Homo and portrait of Margaret of Austria are important.
This Gallery offers abundant opportunity to study Rubens in the various periods of his unfolding genius. Christ between two Thieves and the Incredulity of Thomas are among his best religious subjects. The Adoration of the Kings, painted in 1624 for the high altar of the Abbey of St. Michael is entirely by his hand. It should be remembered in connection with Rubens that he developed pupils, after the fashion of Raphael, so imbued with his spirit and manner of treatment that only part of many so-called Rubens' are wholly his work. He invented the design and assigned to his skillful figure painters the laying in of the figures, to those gifted in landscape, other portions. Thus his School was able to supply an astonishing number of orders in a comparatively short time. This Adoration of the Kings is done in the master's bold, fearless manner. The Last Communion of St. Francis, painted as an altarpiece for a Francis-can Chapel, is now here, but the head of St. Francis is not satisfactory. The Prodigal Son is a forceful picture. Grooms are feeding and caring for their horses in the stable; a servant throws a bucket of food to the pigs, glancing with compassion at the Prodigal who kneels with his face bathed in tears. In the picture entitled the Education of the Virgin, the face of Helen Fourment looks forth in the person of the Madonna.
Mythological themes are here as well, in these rooms of Rubens. Jupiter and Antiope, and The Hunt are both well known.
The two pictures generally thought to embody Rubens' best rendering of religious subjects are in the Antwerp Cathedral—the Elevation of the Cross and Descent from the Cross. He is buried in the Rubens Chapel in St. Jacques, its altarpiece being his own work.
Van Dyck's father was attended during his last illness by the Dominican Sisters and he asked his son to paint a picture for their chapel. It was finished in 1629 and remained there until it was sold to the academy in 1785. Its subject is the Crucifixion. Two of his Entombments are here also.
The Antwerp Academy is fortunate in possessing two of Giotto's paintings, one of Fra Angelico's and one Titian.
During the Napoleonic Period, it was decided that France should establish fifteen departmental museums, Brussels being one of the towns determined upon. An artist was sent to Paris to select works of art from the number previously stolen from Flanders. In 1807 the Museum was opened with a collection of five hundred paintings. Since that time it has continued to grow and in 188o the entire collection was transferred to the new Palace of Fine Arts.
The two missing panels of Van Eyck's Adoration of the Lamb—those of Adam and Eve—are here. Little of Memlinc is to be seen, his work largely confined to Bruges and Antwerp. A small Pieta and the Head of a Weeping Woman are representative of Roger Van der Weyden. Although more completely represented at Antwerp, Rubens may well be studied in the Brussels Gallery. An Adoration of the Magi, Madonna of the Forget-me-not; an Assumption of the Virgin and Coronation of the Virgin are all here as are also some of his well-known mythological productions. Venus at the Forge of Vulcan, Meleager and Atlanta and Juno setting Argus' Eyes in the Peacock's Tail are of great importance.
Christ Carrying the Cross, or as it is sometimes called, the Ascent to Calvary, is Rubens' own work and a characteristic painting. The centurion on horseback is Rubens himself. Fromentin says of it: "Here we have movement, tumult and agitation in the form, gesture, face, disposition of groups, and oblique cast from below upwards, and from right to left. Christ falls beneath his cross, the mounted escort, the two thieves held and pushed on by their executioners, are all proceeding along the same line, and seem to be scaling the narrow staircase that leads to the execution. Notwithstanding that tree of infamy, those women in tears and grief, that condemned man crawling on his knees, with panting mouth, humid temples and haggard eyes that excite pity, notwithstanding the cries, the terror, the imminent death, it is clear, to whomsoever cares to see, that this equestrian pomp, these flying banners, this cuirassed centurion who turns around on his horse with a graceful gesture,—all this makes us forget the execution, and gives the most manifest idea of a triumph."
Many of the Dutch artists are here represented and this gallery is fortunate in possessing many excellent modern pictures.