Situated on the North Sea, the Low Countries are in the cultural and political orbit of France and Germany. During the period covered here, most of the counties and duchies in the region are, technically at least, vassals of the Holy Roman Empire. The exception is Flanders, the most important and powerful county, which belongs to France. This time of rapid political change sees the emergence of powerful secular and ecclesiastical principalities, the rise of an urban elite, and, with the annexation of the region to the Burgundian territories in the late fourteenth century, the gradual emergence of a sense of national identity.
The church is the primary patron of the arts. Imposing ecclesiastical structures are erected throughout the region. Early examples, such as Notre-Dame at Hastière built around 1035, are distinguished by a clear articulation of volumes and heavy walls. Gothic architecture, influenced by buildings in Burgundy and the Champagne, appears relatively late in the Low Countries, never to attain the lightness of French models, as exemplified by the rather stark Church of Notre-Dame at Dinant of 1227–47. Commissions for church furnishings abound, leading to the production in the twelfth and thirteenth century of sculpture, manuscript illumination, and ivory carving. With artists such as Rainer of Huy and Nicholas of Verdun, the Mosan region is one of the most innovative and influential centers for metalwork in western Europe. The manufacture of cloth, made from local and English wool, is a dominant industry from the twelfth century onward. A decline in sales in the fourteenth century prompts the burgomaster of Arras to produce luxury tapestries rather than ordinary fabrics. The town becomes a prime center of medieval tapestry weaving, to be replaced by Brussels and Tournai in the fifteenth century. The end of the period sees the emergence of easel painting as an independent genre.
A manuscript from Tiel provides the first evidence of an emerging urban organization of merchants, who meet regularly, have a common treasury, and are of such importance that they can clear themselves of a charge by merely swearing an oath of innocence. This is the earliest example of the burgomasters, powerful citizens of a town appointed to oversee its finances and defense. They are also responsible for artistic patronage, commissioning works for their cities.
A rise in population and an increased need for space and food drive the reclamation of coastal and marsh land below sea level, using dikes, canals, and windmills. Villages and towns expand. The difficulty of taking and maintaining land from the sea results in a communal organization unusual for the period.
Abbot Hellinus commissions a baptismal font for the Church of Notre-Dame-aux-Fonts in Liège (now in the Church of Saint-Barthélémy) from Rainer of Huy, an artist of whom only the name is known. Cast in bronze in a single piece, the bowl rests on twelve oxen, a reference to the apostles and to the “Molten Sea” in Solomon’s Temple. The basin bears five scenes of baptism, including that of Christ, modeled in high relief, in a remarkably classical manner. The compositions are well balanced, the bodies organically structured, and the draperies arranged in harmonious rhythms. This decidedly three-dimensional style exerts a defining influence on much of the metalwork produced in the Mosan and Lower Rhenish region.
The Concordat of Worms settles a struggle between the Holy Roman Emperor and the papacy over the control of church offices. While the clergy chooses bishops and abbots, the emperor retains the power to decide contested elections. This, in turn, gives the local nobility greater influence in the choice of church officials, and increased independence from the imperial crown.
Mosan goldsmiths perfect champlevé enamel, a technique in which the metal ground—usually gilt copper—is engraved or cut out, and the interstices filled with enamel paste and fired. A major monument is the Saint Remaclus retable of Stavelot Abbey commissioned by Abbot Wibald (r. 1130–58), one of the greatest patrons of the art in the twelfth century. The sole remnants, two medallions with allegories of Faith and Charity (Frankfurt am Main, Museum für Kunsthandwerk, and Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstgewerbemuseum) bear witness to the original splendor of this ensemble. The Pentecost plaque in The Cloisters Collection (65.105), remarkable for the quality of its drawing and for its shimmering colors, may have been produced by the same workshop.
The Holy Roman Empire’s hold on the Low Countries weakens as the Ghibellines and the Guelphs, opposing aristocratic factions in Italy, struggle for the imperial throne. The Low Countries are plunged into the conflict as both groups look for aid there. King Philip Augustus (Philip II) of France uses his alliance with the Ghibellines to invade Flanders.
Nicholas of Verdun creates the Shrine of Saint Mary in Tournai Cathedral. This is the last of three works attributable to him, the other two being the pulpit at Klosterneuburg near Vienna, completed in 1181, and the Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral, on which he worked around 1200. The repoussé scenes of the life of the Virgin on the sides are remarkable for their naturalism, their expressivity, their fluid draperies, and the monumentality of their figures.
Philip Augustus of France wins the Battle of Bouvines, east of Lille, subjecting the count of Flanders. The south of the province is annexed to Artois, beginning a long period of French control. The period sees the rise of an urban elite, appreciated by the French king for the wealth it generates from trade.
Philip IV almost completes the French conquest of Flanders by 1300. In the Battle of the Golden Spurs fought outside Kortrijk on July 11, 1302, an untrained Flemish infantry militia, composed mainly of members of the guilds, wins a decisive victory over French knights, preventing official absorption into France, although French influence remains strong. Between 1323 and 1328, for example, the count of Flanders requests the help of the French army to crush a peasant revolt supported by the town of Bruges.
The outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England further strains Flemish-Franco relations. Although Count Louis I of Flanders remains loyal to France, most of his subjects side with England, because its wool is vital to the local textile industry; Louis I takes refuge at the French court in 1338. Until its annexation to the Burgundian territories later in the century, the region is ruled primarily by the powerful cities of Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres.
The death of Willem IV, count of Holland, leads to a lasting civil war between an aristocratic faction known as the Hooks and a middle-class faction known as the Cods. The intervention of the House of Wittelsbach settles the issue, and its members rule as counts of Holland until the province surrenders to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, in 1433.
A Utrecht painter produces the epitaph of Hendrik van Rijn, canon of the Church of Saint John in that city. This panel (Antwerp, Museum voor Schone Kunsten) is the oldest surviving example of easel painting in the region.
The marriage of Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, to Margaret of Flanders marks the beginning of Burgundian rule in the Low Countries, which will last until the region passes to the Habsburgs in 1482. His efforts toward centralization help develop a national feeling, which results eventually in an enduring union of all the Low Countries.
“Low Countries, 1000–1400 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=07®ion=euwl (October 2001)