PRINT January 2008


“Dutch Primitives”

Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Glorification of the Virgin Mary, ca. 1495, oil on wood panel, 10 1/2 x 8".

IN THE EARLY 1400s, painters in the Low Countries created a new species of image. With wood panels as their favored support, and handling their medium of oil-based pigments in unprecedented ways, they crafted glazed and layered likenesses the only real-world equivalents of which—optically—were natural reflections. Boasting this by including mirrors in their compositions, these artists astonished everyone who saw their work, including the Italians, who, at the time, recognized the technical superiority of the northerners. This new image technology did more than overwhelm with its mimetic power, however. Constructing virtual realities consistent with the perceived world, it allowed viewers to explore worlds hitherto inaccessible to experience.

In this culture, painting stood at the service of religion. The virtualities it proposed were mostly those allowing visual access to the divine. Heaven was made a splendid annex of the painting’s physical surrounds, while the mundane world itself became the site—once more—of the incarnated God. The convergence of Christian humility with “naturalistic” oil paint techniques will be one of the fascinating complexes on exhibit at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, from February 16 through May 25. Although none of the artists featured are household names (many remain anonymous), they count among the most moving and challenging of European masters.

“Dutch Primitives: Paintings from the Late Middle Ages” (organized by the Boijmans in cooperation with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam) surveys the “infancy of Dutch painting.” “Primitive” is an old label for fifteenth-century Netherlandish painting. It goes back to the Romantics, who, in the wake of Napoleonic secularization, discerned in the aesthetically discredited art of the Middle Ages a new beauty ideal, one that seemed original, autochthonous, and pure compared with the classicism of academic tastes. An early ancestor of modernist celebrations of the primitive, the Romantic rediscovery of Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Hans Memling colors contemporary attitudes toward Netherlandish art. Whereas Italian art of the period is termed “Renaissance” and faces forward, northern art—which the Italians themselves recognized as vanguard—is deemed a “late” flowering of the Middle Ages.

The idea of a distinctively “Dutch” strain is vexing, too. In the fifteenth century, the Low Countries—Europe’s richest and most urbanized region—were a patchwork of polities mostly ruled from afar, by the dukes of Burgundy. Though overshadowed by Flanders and Brabant, the county of Holland produced important painters (Jan van Eyck’s early career began here). But the impulse to distinguish a Dutch tradition started much later, after the division in 1579 of the Low Countries into a Catholic south and a Protestant north (roughly today’s Belgium and the Netherlands, respectively). It began with the first historian of northern art, Karel van Mander, who—around 1600—took his hometown of Haarlem to be an artistic cradle. And the impulse resurfaced in scholarship and in exhibitions of the 1930s, infused with fantasies about ethnic character. Though showcasing—straightforwardly—paintings made in the northern Netherlands, the upcoming Rotterdam exhibition will reopen questions about whether “Dutch” was an artistic identity prior to the division of the Low Countries.

A central artistic personality of the show will be Geertgen tot Sint Jans, a highly original master who lived in the Commandery of the Hospitallers of St. John in Haarlem (hence “Sint Jans”). Geertgen’s career was brief—spanning roughly the 1480s—and only about fifteen of his works survive. Two huge ones (ca. 1484; not in the exhibition) come from the Commandery itself; the portraits of the Hospitallers included in them were the starting point for Alois Riegl’s book The Group Portraiture of Holland (1902), which traced a subjective mode of European painting back to Geertgen. The Rotterdam show will gather an astonishing twelve works by this painter, among them his memorable John the Baptist, ca. 1485, in which the saint, assuming the posture of melancholy, meditates in a sublime forest setting. If this panel evokes the contemplative life, Geertgen’s tiny Glorification of the Virgin Mary, ca. 1495, pursues contemplation’s inner content: Virgin and child illuminate an infinitude of angels backed by a Boschian darkness. Geertgen engineered his pictures for a distinctive North Netherlandish style of piety. With its center in Holland, the religious movement Devotio Moderna stressed individual meditation over churchly ceremony. Its literary monument, Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ (ca. 1418), preached that to know Christ was to become humble like Christ. Several of the works to be gathered in Rotterdam practice such preaching, assuming a willfully simple style. One (ca. 1495–1500) places the viewer at a frugal supper table with the Holy Family. Attributed to the anonymous Master of the Brunswick Diptych, this work—according to the exhibition’s curators—is genre painting avant la lettre and the roots of Dutch painting of the Golden Age.

However its spiritual milieu and legacy are understood, a stress on the ordinary and low does distinguish these paintings from their more splendid South Netherlandish counterparts, forming a key link between the Christian tradition and a later secular painting of everyday life. Visitors to the Boijmans can expect to be moved by the Master of the Virgo inter Virgines. In panels by this unforgettable anonymous from Delft, emaciated actors—isolated in strange pockets of landscape—render the familiar Passion narrative terrifyingly human. Just decades after their production, such intensely affecting images became the target of Protestant iconoclasts, who destroyed much of what would count as the “Dutch primitives.” As an appropriate coda, the exhibition features Lucas van Leyden’s Adoration of the Golden Calf, ca. 1530. Working in the triptych format evocative of altarpieces, and painting in a precocious, mobile style anticipating baroque painting, Lucas imagines the primal scene of idolatry, creating a self-consuming anti-image. The work is an heir to its Dutch predecessors, which, in their deliberate humility (dare I say their primitivism), withhold ascetically their artistry. In any case, these amazing, physically fragile panels will not be gathered again in our lifetime.

“Dutch Primitives” will be on view at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Feb. 16–May 25.

Joseph Leo Koerner is a professor of the history of art and architecture at Harvard University.