Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 4, 2004
Gregory T. Clark Made in Flanders: The Master of the Ghent Privileges and Manuscript Painting in the Southern Netherlands in the Time of Philip the Good New York: Brepols Publishers, 2000. 500 pp.; 400 b/w ills. Cloth €136.00 (2503508782)
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Recent publications have dramatically refined our knowledge of the late medieval manuscript workshops of northern Europe. Scholars have studied centers of production (e.g., Paris, Amiens, Lyons, and Tournai), major artistic monuments (e.g., the Turin-Milan Hours and the Chroniques de Hainaut), and the oeuvres of individual artists and shops (e.g., Willem Vrelant and the Master of the Champion des Dames). Gregory Clark’s weighty study falls into this latter category, as it closely examines the works ascribed to the Master of the Ghent Privileges (or “Privileges Master,” for short). This master was first associated with an oeuvre by Friedrich Winkler in 1915, who named the artist after a celebrated manuscript in Vienna, and subsequent studies expanded that corpus while establishing the rough parameters of the master’s style. But prior to Clark’s publication, our understanding of the relationship among these works was rudimentary. Stylistic disparities within the oeuvre were left without explanation, and little agreement was made on the manuscripts’ precise dates and places of execution. Clark’s efforts in this book go a long way to remedy that situation, greatly clarifying and increasing the art-historical account of this important shop’s work.

Clark’s study allows us to revise the existing account of the Privileges Master’s workshop in significant ways. Using the old term “master” to denote identifiable corporate styles, Clark demonstrates that the oeuvre previously ascribed to the Privileges Master is in fact the product of two discrete but related shops. The first, for which Clark retains the Privileges Master sobriquet, was succeeded by the second, which the author names the Master of the Ghent Gradual (or Gradual Master). Clark also greatly refines the chronology for this now bicephalous oeuvre, dating the Privileges Master illuminations between the 1440s and 1460, and the Gradual Master works to between 1460 and the mid-1470s. Furthermore, Clark amasses a body of evidence pointing to the diocese of Tournai as the likely home of these masters. But while much of Clark’s book is devoted to issues of attribution, dating, and localization, it touches on other important issues as well. His close analysis of the visual parallels among illuminations both within and beyond the Privileges Master oeuvre amplifies our understanding of the working methods of fifteenth-century Flemish illuminators, supplementing earlier scholarship on copying and models by such authors as Robert Scheller and Anne van Buren, among others. Finally, his discussions of the ideological implications of style also offer considerable food for thought, as they complicate traditional accounts that view fifteenth-century illumination as overwhelmingly dedicated to the pursuit of naturalism.

Clark devotes his first two chapters to a careful stylistic analysis of works by the Privileges Master and the Gradual Master, respectively. While these lengthy descriptive passages will be of interest primarily to specialists, they do provide fine examples of the sort of meticulous visual attention employed in connoisseurship. The author sees the work of the Privileges Master as characterized by a desire to balance the naturalism and spatial complexity found in the work of other artists of the period with a keen appreciation of surface ornament and decorative detail witnessed in earlier illuminations. Clark describes the Gradual Master as someone who increasingly favored naturalistic effects, while downplaying the resolutely two-dimensional aspects of the previous master’s work. Proposed dates for these works are interwoven into the stylistic descriptions contained in these two chapters; the codicological and iconographic bases for that dating are further fleshed out in subsequent chapters. In many ways, of course, such chronologies can be a proverbial house of cards, with hypothetical dates often founded on comparisons to other, equally hypothetically dated manuscripts. Furthermore, Clark’s chronological distinctions are occasionally based on the assumption that both masters shifted toward greater naturalism over the course of their careers. That assumption is rendered problematic by one of the underlying points of Clark’s own study: that the penchant for naturalism may not have been as widespread among fifteenth-century artists and audiences as modern scholars have believed. However, Clark is wise to provide only a rough chronology, buttressed with multiple forms of evidence (stylistic and otherwise) and replete with judicious caveats.

The third chapter traces the Privileges Master’s visual and iconographic models, the majority of which Clark locates in manuscript sources: Parisian illuminations of ca. 1400–20 (especially the Boucicaut Master), the works of the Guillebert de Mets workshop (or workshops?) of the 1420s and 1430s, and Amiens illumination of the 1430s and 1440s. He also notes that the Privileges Master appears to have drawn upon contemporary panel painting for inspiration. Whereas scholars have shown that illuminators of the period sought at times to reproduce entire celebrated panel paintings, Clark discerns a more limited emulation, in which the Privileges Master mostly extracted elements of gesture and iconography from panels. The Gradual Master in turn drew extensively on work by the Privileges Master. As the author notes, the parallels between the two strongly imply a professional affiliation; chronological indications support his contention that the Gradual Master was the Privileges Master’s successor. Clark also shows that both groups frequently devised their own compositions, demonstrating a considerable degree of inventiveness. Finally, he offers a reasoned discussion of inconclusive evidence suggesting that the Privileges Master was involved in tapestry production.

Chapters 4 and 5 attempt further to characterize the working practices of the Privileges Master and Gradual Master by analyzing the rare but telling cases of collaboration between those two shops and other artists of the period (chapter 4) and by discussing the evidence for dating and localization of the manuscripts (chapter 5). While much of the author’s attention in these chapters is devoted to the miniatures themselves, his discussion also draws on his “excursus” to the text, discussing the manuscripts’ ancillary forms of decoration. All of this information is brought together to support the tentative conclusion that the manuscripts were made in the diocese of Tournai, either in Ghent or in the city of Tournai itself. On this count, it is unfortunate that Clark’s book was in press at the same time as Dominique Vanwijnsberghe’s documentary study of late medieval book production in Tournai (De Fin or et d’azur [Louvain, Belgium: Peeters, 2001]). Clark evidently had access to Vanwijnsberghe’s 1996 dissertation, but he cites it only to support his contentions concerning the apparent ubiquity of the Use of Tournai in the city of Ghent (140–41 and n. 19). Future studies will need to confront Clark’s findings concerning his masters’ models and working methods with the circumstances uncovered through Vanwijnsberghe’s archival research.

The sixth and final chapter is short but rich in implications. In it Clark restates and broadens his challenge to simplistic art-historical accounts describing fifteenth-century artists and patrons as single-mindedly devoted to ever-increasing degrees of naturalism. In remarks that recall earlier generations of scholars, who sought to describe in positive terms the stylistic shifts evident in late antique art, Clark speculates that the Privileges Master’s patrons (including Duke Philip the Good) may have appreciated the artist’s rich, hieratic images for their ability to convey a sense of unassailable power and magnificence. He further suggests that the style of these (and related) masters may also have been valued for their ability to convey a spiritually charged sense of otherworldliness, making their images appropriate for use in devotional contexts. Of course, the fact that the obsessively rendered naturalism found in panel paintings of the period appears in images of a predominantly religious nature prevents us from positing any simple equation between sacrality and archaic styles, and Clark is wise to couch his thoughts here in caveats and qualifications. But, in fact, he might have pushed his points on this score even further. For instance, he cites the spatial abstraction found in Jean Le Tavernier’s grisaille miniatures as an example of antinaturalistic trends, but one wonders whether the period’s vogue for grisaille imagery itself (and the concurrent increasing acceptance of crudely colored woodcut imagery) might not have been a part of a widespread visual challenge to the gemlike colors found on panels of the period.

Indeed, it is rapidly becoming clear that the fifteenth century was not as aesthetically monolithic as the first modern scholars of the “Flemish primitives” assumed. On the one hand, recent scholars have stressed the degree to which descriptions of the period’s devotional activities were shot through with the language of ocular experience; those scholars have pointed to ways in which naturalistic imagery would have played a role in fostering profound spiritual experiences. But on the other, emerging scholarship has explored illuminators (e.g., Pascale Charron’s Le Maître du Champion des dames [Paris: Le comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques/Institut national d’histoire de l’art, 2004]) and entire media (see, for instance, Laura Weigert’s stimulating review of recent exhibitions in The Art Bulletin 85 [December 2003]: 784–96) that do not fit neatly under the rubric of “the triumph of naturalism.” One might be tempted to say that some of these works seem self-consciously to reject naturalism, playing with but ultimately discarding its rules. It is on these points that Clark’s study performs perhaps its greatest service. The author has provided further evidence that we need to rethink received notions concerning the meanings of style in the fifteenth century. His rigorous efforts to attribute, localize, and date the illuminations of the Privileges and Gradual Masters will help provide a firm historical grounding on which such work can proceed.

Stephen Perkinson
Associate Professor, Art Department, Bowdoin College

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