Cranleigh Arts Centre
West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
Cult of the
The 15th century
artists of Bruges.
Report of the lecture given by the
Dr Christopher Herbert PhD
on September 22nd 2010
just returned from a trip to Bruges it was fascinating to hear how this little
Venice of the North, with its delightful canals and waterways, now such a
thriving centre of tourism was once an economic powerhouse for Europe.
The talk began by looking at some of the highlights of Bruges' beautiful
buildings and churches - such as the Ghent Gate, the Market Hall and the Alms
Houses with their distinctive Flemish style. A building of particular interest
was St John's Hospital, a religious home for nuns who chose not to take their
vows but lived and worked in a pious way and were known as the Begijns Order.
We were transported back to the 15th century when wool from England
was arriving in the port as fast as silk and other luxury goods could be shipped
back. Much of the wool trade was with Venice and Florence and so it was not
long before the Medici family became involved and, with their best commercial
hats on, formed one of the major banks in Bruges to be managed by Tomasso
Porterini - badly, it would later turn out!
Flanders had become part of The House of Burgundy dynasty and we
followed a brief history through John the Fearless, Philip the Good and on to
Charles the Bold who was to marry Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV.
example of the bad management of Portinari was the vast amount of money he lent
Edward IV for the sumptuous wedding of Margaret to Charles the Good - money
that the Medici Bank did not have the reserves to cover later. Is this a
familiar story we ask? When the banking turmoil eventually came to a crux an
agreement was made with Edward IV that certain tariffs on the wool imports could
be waived in order to service the loan, but this was never sufficient and the
Medici Bank went into liquidation - Yes, all a very familiar story!
However, whilst times were good it was people like Portinari and the
rich merchantmen that commissioned great works of art such as those by Hans
Memling and Jan Van Eyk which we examined in close detail with an explanation of
their symbolism. For example, a triptych altar piece would always have the
infant Jesus naked rather than in swaddling clothes to demonstrate 'the flesh of
Our Lord' in the taking of the sacraments.
Van Eyk was often
attributed with the invention of oil painting but this is now thought unlikely
although he was masterly with the use of it. He would use several layers to
obtain a depth of glow. He was also the first to break with tradition in the
rigidity of composition and used landscape scenes in the distant background.
This was a fascinating lecture which linked art, power and politics
together in a relaxed and amusing way.
Rt Rev Christopher Herbert, a former Bishop of St. Alban's, has an MPhil and PhD
in Art History from the University of Leicester. He lectures widely in the UK
and in Italy.