In the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century in France and the Burgundian Netherlands, artists such as the de Limbourgs, Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes, Hans Memling, Gerard David and Jan Gossaert produced some of the most visually astonishing works in the history of art. Alongside these paintings was an equally significant, highly valued and valuable, though often more anonymous, production of sculpture, tapestries, metalwork, ivories and other ‘joyaux’. This course will investigate this production, and its debates, by detailed study of the works themselves. It will consider, in particular, major, often controversial, works that have been the subject of recent scholarship, restoration or technical analysis, such as Tomb of Philip the Bold and the Well of Moses by Claus Sluter in Dijon, the Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eycks (full technical photographs of which are now available on-line), the Courtauld Gallery’s Seilern Triptych, the Prado Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden, Louis of Anjou’s ‘Libretto’ in Florence and the Portinari altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes.
How might we re-write the history of this major period of artistic production if we return to the objects, and their materiality? What can we learn from close looking, aided where possible by technical analysis, about their structure, their original form, their materials, their facture, their attribution, history, restoration, change over time and meaning? Alongside this we will consider documentary sources concerning their making, ownership, and function, learning what remains in terms of primary evidence, and how we might use it: we will read guild regulations, payment accounts, inventories and contracts, looking at original documents as well as transcriptions and translations. This evidence will help us investigate how painters and sculptors undertook their craft (which may have included designing for other crafts such as stained glass and tapestry). We will consider questions such as how materials (from lapis lazuli and red lake to black Dinant marble and white alabaster) were acquired, how much they cost, their properties, advantages and limitations, their technical difficulties, and how they were prepared and employed; we will try and establish how collaboration might have taken place and where we can find documentary and physical evidence for it; how painters designed and planned their images, why works were copied and how, and the role of the patron in shaping their form.
We will also consider throughout the course ways in which we might analyse and interpret the content of these works – what is represented, and how, considering visual strategies in the light of what we know about devotional, liturgical and social practices, as well as material value: here the student will develop skills of visual analysis, and use a different range of primary sources, that may be devotional or theological texts, poetry or chronicles. Throughout, the emphasis will be on a reconsideration of the objects, their facture and their material form, a process that enables us to reassess the secondary literature, sometimes overturning long-held ideas about their original appearance, function and meaning; this focus will also suggest new pathways that might be followed, with the object and its evidence leading the way. The aim is to provide students with a tool kit for their own research, which may be on any aspect of the art of Northern Europe at this period (or Spain, closely tied to the North in many ways, and a major importer of northern luxury goods including painting). This research is undertaken in the two assessed essays (an ‘object biography’ and a ‘mystery object’ in a collection in London), a virtual exhibition, and the MA dissertation.
The course will include a trip to France or Belgium, and will also take full advantage of London collections. Handling sessions with objects – prints and drawings, small scale sculpture and metalwork – will also be an important part of this course. Practical sessions on drawing in silverpoint, and on painting in oil paint and egg tempera will also be included, where we will work with materials as close to those of the period as is possible today, to understand their handling properties.