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Belgian And Dutch Renaissance - Influences

( Originally Published 1921 )


I. Geographical.—The position of Belgium and Holland naturally continued, as in Mediaeval times (p. 468), to lay them open to the dual influences of France and Germany ; while with the shifting of European boundaries which brought the Netherlands within the dominions of Charles V, there ensued the additional influence of Spain. The great rivers, Meuse, Scheldt, and Sambre, which irrigate Belgium, and which suggested the construction of the numerous canals, promoted the development of the country and contributed to the richness of the soil and the success of the water-borne trade. The inland seas, such as the Zuider Zee, rendered the same service to the towns of Holland, where, moreover, the sea-coast, which was large in proportion to the mainland, provided that excellent harbourage at Amsterdam and Rotterdam which enabled the Dutch to carry on their extensive overseas trade and so to build up their colonial possessions ; while their constant warfare with the water at home made them a seafaring people, and their prosperity is chronicled in the guild houses of this period.

II. Geological.—The clay so easily obtainable for the making of bricks in the low-lying flats of these sea-girt countries, and more especially of Holland, still continued, as in the Mediaeval period (p. 468), to give that subtle character to the architecture which we recognise as Dutch. Later on, but more especially in Belgium, brick was largely superseded by or used in combination with the stone, granite, and slate of the Ardennes mountains, while black and white marbles give a sombre dignity to many choir screens and altar-pieces. Besides this the excellent forest timber gave full scope for the woodcarver's craft, which was used to such an extent in the lavish decoration of choir stalls, confessionals, pulpits, and organ " buffets " in Belgian churches.

III. Climatic.—The climate of Belgium, as already described (p. 469), has greater extremes of heat and cold than that of England. In Holland the prevalence of the west wind, laden with humidity and driving unchecked across a flat country, resulted in the need for artificial protection against the elements, which is seen in the use of solid wooden shutters and of wind screens formed by trees, while steep roofs are required to throw off rain and snow.

IV. Religious. — Spanish rule under Charles V inevitably introduced religious persecution into the Netherlands, and this continued under the Duke of Alva, Viceroy of Philip II, and led in A.D. 1568 to revolt, which lasted till A.D. 1609. During this time the differences in religious tendencies between Belgians and Dutch were accentuated, so that the Catholic Belgians under the Duke of Parma, himself an Italian, rallied to Spain, and Jesuit influence is seen in many Baroque churches of Belgium. The sturdy Protestant Dutch broke away and constituted the " United Provinces " which were destined to develop into a great maritime and commercial power. It is significant of the earnestness of the Dutch religious outlook that they were chiefly intent on religious independence, and had little inclination for an artistic expression of their religion. This element in national character is evidenced in their barn-like churches, while the prominence given to preaching produced a wholesale transformation of church interiors, so that one may often see the pulpit towering above the altar, or rather the communion table, which was removed to one side of the nave, with seats for worshippers set round in a semicircle ; thus altering the character of the original Mediaeval church.

V. Social.—In Belgium, trade activity may be traced in the erection of various guild houses, while such ports as Bruges and Ghent gave way to Antwerp, where the deep water provided a fine harbour for large vessels which carried on the trade with the rest of Europe, India, and the New World. This prosperity, though not permanent and growing, found its counterpart in the increased recognition of art, which is seen in the appointment of Rubens as Court painter in A.D. 1609.

Dutch trade, however, was much more vigorous and increased by leaps and bounds between the years A.D. 1625 and 165o, and the Dutch became the carriers of the world and even challenged the supremacy of our island-power at sea. This commercial success was not mirrored in monumental buildings, but was characteristically displayed in the town halls and in plain and serviceable houses for the wealthy burghers who were also patrons of art at this time. Rembrandt and many other Dutch painters contributed by their genius to the development of the golden age of painting in Holland.

VI. Historical.—The Netherlands have had a troubled history. After passing to the House of Hapsburg in A.D. 1477, Belgium became subject to Charles V in A.D. 1543, and afterwards to Philip II of Spain, whose troops under the Duke of Alva devastated the country ; this was followed by an unsuccessful revolt, and Belgium continued under the Spanish yoke till the Treaty of Utrecht (A.D. 1713) handed her over to Austria. In A.D. 1794 the country was occupied by French republicans and in A.D. 1814 was united to Holland to form the " Kingdom of the Netherlands," and so remained until in A.D. 1830 it became an independent state.

Holland had an equally chequered career, and after a struggle which began in A.D. 1568 and lasted eighty years the Peace of Westphalia recognised (A.D. 1648) the Republic of the United Netherlands. The Dutch Navy was now at its zenith, and, owing to Cromwell's Navigation Acts, war ensued with England (A.D. 1652—54) and successful naval battles were fought by Van Tromp, de Witte, and de Ruyter. In A.D. 1674 William was elected " Stadtholder," defended the country against Louis XIV, and in A.D. 1688 he shared with Queen Mary the throne of England, and there introduced many Dutch ideas. In A.D. 1806 Holland did not escape annexation by Napoleon I, and in A.D. 1830, when separated from Belgium, it became an independent kingdom.

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