Social Life and the Individual

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Social Life and the Individual

The Rise of Urban Centers.

With the continued growth of the mercantile economy throughout Europe, towns and cities flourished and became the vital centers of late medieval culture and art production. At the forefront of this new urban culture was the middle class, a social group that increasingly came to be associated with the patronage base for much art of the period. They were merchants and financiers, manufacturers and craftsmen, and they could afford to acquire works of art that accorded with their tastes and growing sense of their social status. With the rise of a professional class of artists organized by trade or specialty into guilds, cities such as Paris, London, Barcelona, Siena, Cologne, and Brussels became booming marketplaces for the production and sale of art. Art from such a context was very often secular in nature and in its new subjects and themes it tended to express the materialism and social experience of the middle class.

Daily Life in Art.

These new clients for art encouraged artists to explore new themes in their work. Painters, in particular, increasingly turned to the objects of everyday life, which when rendered in a naturalistic style expressed the taste of their middle-class patrons. Subjects such as landscapes, cityscapes, still lives, and portraits became more and more prominent in art, whether the work was to have a religious or a purely secular function. In works of a religious nature, complex theological ideas were made more accessible to a middle-class viewer when expressed in a visual language of everyday naturalism. In the oil painting known as the Salting Madonna, Robert Campin, an artist from the city of Tournai in Flanders, placed the Virgin Mary within a contemporary domestic setting, complete with fireplace, a bench with comfortable pillows (upon which lies an open Book of Hours), and a window with an open shutter allowing a view of the town outside. An attentive mother dressed in contemporary bourgeois clothing, Mary holds her baby gently and prepares to nurse. Except for the occasional visual clue that a contemporary viewer would recognize in this or similar paintings—the fire screen that frames Mary's head like a halo, in this case (the chalice is part of a modern restoration)—little about such paintings suggests a divine, otherworldly subject. In fact, bourgeois viewers would have easily identified with the familiar scene and its homey details. The modest size of this work and others like it stood in contrast to the more lavish and grandiose productions destined for the church or the aristocracy and suited the taste and the needs of a middle-class urban clientele. As head of the Tournai painters' guild (as well as holder of several other prominent positions in the city), Campin was part of the new urban social fabric and thus he well understood the milieu of his patrons.

Civic Identity.

Town life also bred a sense of civic identity, and as urban populations assumed more control over society and politics, the arts provided a visual expression of this new sense of civic pride and power. This is especially evident in the case of the rival city-states in Italy like Florence, Siena, Pisa, and Venice, which commissioned major civic monuments throughout the later Middle Ages. Increasingly specialized and organized into guilds, artists participated in a professional culture that was more highly regulated and standardized than ever before. Regulations stipulating the civic responsibilities of artists were laid out in compilations such as the Livre des Métiers (Book of the Trades) written in Paris in 1268.

Competition for Art.

In thriving European cities, cathedral and town hall often competed with one another in luring the best artists and commissioning works that combined in equal parts civic pride and Christian piety. The case of fourteenth-century Siena is exemplary in this regard. The acclaimed painter Duccio di Buoninsegna (active 1278–1318/19) was commissioned in 1308 to create a large altarpiece for the cathedral's main altar. It was to depict the Virgin Mary in glory according to an established format and type known as Maestà. Duccio's completion of the project in 1311 occasioned citywide festivities. The huge altarpiece, made up of a large central panel and 26 smaller side panels, was carried in procession from Duccio's workshop to the cathedral accompanied by the music of tambourines, trumpets, and castanets. In acknowledgment of Duccio's great renown and his importance to the city, his signature was prominently displayed on the face of the altarpiece. In this case the artist and the work of art are both emblems of civic pride and identity. But this status was not conferred only upon one artist or one work: six years later the acclaimed painter Simone Martini was commissioned to paint the same subject for Siena's city hall.

A Fresco of Good Government.

In 1338, the elected city council of Siena (the nine good and lawful merchants of the city, known simply as The Nine) requested the services of Ambrogio Lorenzetti to create an elaborate program of frescoes to decorate their meeting chamber (the Sala della Pace) in the Palazzo Pubblico or town hall. A Siena native, Ambrogio (with his brother Pietro) was perhaps the chief rival to the great Simone Martini. The commission was granted in the hope that the work—in its quality as well as its subject—would reflect well upon the governing administration. The subject consisted of three scenes depicting the effects of good and bad government and an allegory of good government. Ambrogio chose the wall receiving the most light (East) to paint the Effects of Good Government, while leaving the Effects of Bad Government on the darker side. (For Ambrogio's Effects of Good Government, see the paragraph "Round Dance" in the Dance chapter.) In the former, Ambrogio depicted the interrelated urban and rural economies by means of realistic topographical representations of a town and its surrounding countryside, with all the details of an organized landscape and the industrious work of its inhabitants. The view of the town offers a panorama of late medieval occupations that included, among others, carpenters, shopkeepers, shoemakers, and shepherds. A school recalls the importance of education for good government, and the tavern perhaps alludes to the necessity of some leisure in a balanced society. To complete this image of harmony, a group of elegant ladies are dancing and playing tambourines in the foreground. Painted with utmost realism, this picture of civic life in Siena impressed upon any visitors to the Palazzo Pubblico the soundness of the local government and the pride of the citizens.

Individualism among Artists and Patrons.

Both patrons and artists came to imprint their own personal identities on works of art. Although patrons now included members of the rising civic elite, they shared with the most exalted rulers a desire to express their pretensions and their ideology in commissioned works. Artists, encouraged by demanding clients to achieve ever-greater levels of technical mastery, developed innovative approaches and personal styles that increased their status and their appeal among patrons. Aristocratic patrons especially sought out some of the most well-known and accomplished painters, illuminators, sculptors, and goldsmiths of their day, from the late twelfth-century's Nicholas of Verdun to later masters such as William de Brailes, Jean Pucelle, Jean de Liège, Simone Martini, Ferrer Bassa, the Limbourg brothers, and Giovanni Pisano. Because society recognized the importance of the arts for the promotion of particular values, the status and role of the artist in society advanced from that of a simple artisan to the more distinguished rank of ambassador or city councilor. With this upwardly mobile status came the prospect of steady commissions as well as special tax exemptions and other advantages. Many of the best artists were drawn to important urban centers for these reasons, while the competition among artists encouraged innovation and technical virtuosity.

Commissions in Gold and Enamel.

Perhaps the practice of the goldsmith best represents the patrons' demands for singularity and perfection in their commissioned works. Religious commissions in gold and silver were intended to express the brilliance of the celestial city and they often occupied a proud spot within their respective church treasuries. The durability of the material was seen as fitting for a representation of an eternal concept, and the economic and symbolic value of the precious metals meant that such commissions were generally entrusted to the expert hands of the most talented craftsmen. An important center for this kind of work was the Meuse Valley, in northwest Germany. The goldsmiths, aware of their own status and importance, typically signed their work, and some even included a self-portrait within a completed art object. Nicholas of Verdun's Klosterneuburg altarpiece, executed around 1181, is a good example. The work was originally conceived as a pulpit for the abbey of Klosterneuburg near Vienna, Austria, and it was later reconstructed as an altarpiece after it was damaged in a fire in 1330. In this most excellent example of the goldsmith's craft, Nicholas employed both the niello and champlevé enamel techniques on bronze-gilt panels. The translucent blue enamel technique vividly contrasts with the gilt-bronze, and the virtuoso chiseling of the metal creates a fine design delineating sinuous figures and details of drapery folds, hair, beards, and muscle definition. A certain Provost Wernher, whose name is recorded with that of the artist, was presumably responsible for orchestrating the iconographic program that contains typological comparisons between the Life of Christ and the Old Testament scenes. These scenes, reconstructed into three horizontal rows are organized into the following categories: ante legem (before the Law of Moses: scenes from Genesis and Exodus), sub lege (under the Law of Moses: scenes from subsequent sections of the Old Testament), and sub gracia (under Grace: the new dispensation of Christ, with scenes from the Annunciation to the Pentecost).

Professional Artists in the Court.

As artists' sense of self-worth and social importance increased, patrons and artists developed new kinds of relationships. Artists working in the service of kings and dukes were often recognized with courtly titles, such as Valet de Chambre, which guaranteed them lifelong security. A well-known example is that of the brothers Limbourg and the duke of Berry. The story of Pol, Herman, and Jean Limbourg, manuscript illuminators, begins in Nijmegen in the northern Netherlands where they were born to a family of artisans. While traveling to Brussels where they planned to join their uncle the painter Jean Malouel, who worked for the Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy, they fell victim to the conflict between the regions of Brabant and Guelders, and were imprisoned. Thanks to the intervention of their uncle, the generosity of the duke of Burgundy (who paid their ransom), and the duke's family ties to Jean, duke of Berry, the three brothers ended their journey at the court of Jean, duke of Berry, in Poitiers (south-central France). There, they entered into a privileged relationship with the duke that ended only with his death in 1416. An exceptional art amateur, a great collector of gems and precious objects, and a renowned bibliophile, Jean, duke of Berry, became for the three brothers an ideal patron and benefactor. Expert in the art of illuminations, the Limbourg brothers offered to the duke, in exchange for his protection and support, some of the most excellent manuscript decorations of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Their best-known production is the very famous Très Riches Heures (Very Rich Hours) executed between 1390 and 1416.

and Enamel

Always important in medieval Europe (especially as part of the luxury trade), the so-called decorative arts of metalwork and enamel reached a new peak of technical accomplishment and popularity during the Romanesque and Gothic periods. Metal smiths applied their skill to the creation and embellishment of liturgical (church) objects, secular objects such as vessels for use at royal and noble courts, and decorative covers for deluxe illuminated manuscripts. They used both precious and non-precious (base) metals, and often ornamented their objects with gems (precious and semi-precious stones) and enamels. Vessels, candlestick holders, and other objects used for church services were cast in bronze, brass, or copper, and their production seems to have increased beginning in the twelfth century. The surfaces of these cast objects were often tooled for decorative effect, gilded, or enameled. Sometimes they were ornamented using niello, a metalwork process (from the Italian niellare, meaning to fill in) whereby a design was engraved in the metal surface and then filled with a black substance made from sulfur combined into an alloy with gold, silver, copper, or lead, and then fused with heat so that the image is in contrast to the background.

Gold and silver were more highly valued metals. They were considered precious because of their sheer material splendor and their rarity, but also because of their malleability. Most often these metals were not cast but were made into reliefs using a process known as embossing or repoussé (literally "pushed away") in which the sheet is hammered from behind to create a raised design. Further texture and detail is created by chasing, or indenting the surface with a blunt instrument. Reliquary containers were often made using these techniques.

Enamel is a substance formed from colored glass powder that is melted and fused, usually to a metal surface. It was developed into a major art form in medieval Europe and was used principally for liturgical objects, such as reliquary containers, altarpieces, crowns, chalices and other vessels, and altar crosses. The enamel itself is not expensive, though the objects adorned with this colorful, durable, jewel-like medium were highly valued. In cloisonné enamel, a technique more associated with the Byzantine Empire where it was likely invented (and known in the West thanks to the trade in luxury goods), a network of metal bands or strips of gold (cloison in French means "partition") is soldered together on a thin, usually gold surface to form the structure of the design. The enamel is then set within these compartments, which are visually separated by the exposed top edge of the dividing bands. The very delicate effect suited the Byzantine aesthetic. Champlevé enamel was practiced long before it was rein-vigorated in twelfth-century Western Europe. It is a process whereby the substance is poured into grooves that are previously engraved into the metal surface, so that the hardened enamel is flush with the surface of the metal (champlevé is French for "raised field"). Production was concentrated in two main areas: the Mosan region in the Meuse River Valley, today's Belgium, and the southwest of France (most notably in the city of Limoges).

The TrÈs Riches Heures.

The decorated book of hours was a quintessentially late medieval product with which some of the most familiar artistic personalities and the most pretentious and demanding patrons found common cause. A compendium of devotional texts that developed from the psalter and the monastic breviary but that was intended for private use among the laity, the book of hours became a showcase for both illuminators and patrons to express their identities and to champion the individualism and the artistry of the late Middle Ages. In the Très Riches Heures, the Limbourgs present a wonderfully detailed panorama of the duke's properties and of courtly life in later medieval France. In the calendar pages, scenes depicting the "labors of the months" feature aristocrat pleasures or peasant activities set against the background of the duke's castles. In the January page, for instance, the duke receives his guests at a lavish banquet. Jean can be identified sitting at the center of the group with a "halo" that is in fact a fire screen. The master of the ceremony welcomes his guests ("approche, approche") who warm their hands near the fire, and servants bring more food and wine to the table. The detailed depiction of the trappings of courtly life helps to showcase the wealth and extravagance of the duke: for example, the bells hanging from the lavish costumes of the courtiers, gold thread embroideries, the


introduction: Decorated books were among the treasured works of art that often were passed down from one generation to another and thus appear in wills and inventories. The first of the two illuminated Bibles described below originally belonged to the French king Charles V, was inherited by Charles VI, and then was loaned to his uncle, Jean, duke of Berry, one of the great collectors of the Middle Ages (he had, for example, 1,500 hunting dogs). Jean never returned the book to its owner, and, judging from the mention of the swan—one of Jean's personal insignia—on the metalwork of the cover, perhaps had it rebound to his own taste. Jean's interest in clothing and fashion is reflected in the mention of the three different kinds of fabric used to make the covers of the second Bible. The importance of the decoration on these two books is illustrated by the fact that the secretary entering the items into an inventory of Jean's possessions in 1413 says almost nothing about the contents of the books, but offers careful descriptions of the bejeweled covers.

Item, a very beautiful Bible in French, written in Gothic book script, richly illuminated at the beginning, decorated with four gold clasps, two with two light-colored rubies and the other two with sapphires, each with two pearls, enameled with the arms [of the king] of France; the bars on the other side each having a pearl at the ends and on top tiny gold fleurs-de-lys nailed to them, the edge being rimmed with two heads of serpents adorned with small swans.

Also another Bible in two small volumes, written in French in Gothic book script, well illuminated with narrative and decorative designs; at the beginning of the second leaf of the first volume it contains the sermon and on the second leaf of the second volume the inscription: "Whatever is born (nais) will be destroyed." Each volume is covered with a flowered silk cloth having four gold clasps, each enameled with the royal arms and with a portrait. There is also a gold border enameled with said arms. The whole is covered with a jacket of purple damask, lined with black tiercelin [a textile woven of three kinds of thread]. The Bible was given to my lord in August 1407 by the now deceased commander (Vidame) of the province of Laon, who used to be great master of the palace of the king. My lord had the jacket made.

source: Jean, Duke of Berry, Inventaires de Jean Duc de Berry (1401–1416). Ed. Jules M. J. Guiffrey (Paris: E. Leroux, 1894–1896). Translation by John Block Friedman.

ducal coats of arms and emblems woven into the tapestries that hang on the walls, the golden vessels, and the generous display of food upon the table. The Limbourgs' knowledge of the duke's collection is demonstrated by their faithful rendering of particular objects, such as the golden vessel in the shape of a boat or the tapestries with battle scenes. Their views of several of the duke's castles suggest that they at times accompanied their patron on his journeys to these residences.


Dirk de Vos, The Flemish Primitives; The Masterpieces: Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Petrus Christus, Dieric Bouts, Hugo van der Goes, Hans Memling, Gerard David (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press; Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2002).

Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art. Vol. I. Trans. Stanley Godman (New York: Vintage Books, 1985).

Felix Thürlemann, Robert Campin: A Monographic Study with Critical Catalogue (Munich, Germany; New York: Prestel, 2002).

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