Stimulated by the presence of the Burgundian court, the Southern Netherlands became one of the most powerful and artistically sophisticated regions in Europe during the fifteenth century. Talented artists flocked to Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, and Leuven—centers where the dukes governed or kept residences—in the hope of finding employment, of benefiting from this new source of wealth and patronage. But though the Burgundian court was the single most important artistic patron during the period, private citizens were no less interested in using art to express their spiritual concerns and personal ambitions. For citizens of the Low Countries, art served widely diverse functions, from religious to decorative, and was produced in a broad range of media, from book illumination to tapestry. At over half a millennium’s remove, these works allow us perhaps our most vivid look into the private lives of the Burgundian Netherlands.
Most of the (surviving) works produced for private use during the fifteenth century were religious in nature. With the broad popularity of reform movements, such as the Brethren of Common Life, that stressed personal piety over liturgical ceremony, people turned increasingly to private devotional prayer for the practice of their beliefs. Art, in turn, offered an uplifting way to illustrate and commemorate these new devotional practices. Robert Campin’s Annunciation Triptych (56.70), in which the formative event of the Annunciation is represented not within a church setting but in a contemporary domestic interior, exemplifies the striking shift toward locating religious experience in the home. The donors in the left wing appear to observe the miraculous event through an open door, though the wife’s rosary and downcast eyes suggest the inward character of their vision. The principal devotional themes in early Netherlandish art were the life and suffering of Christ for man’s redemption. Small-scale sculptures and decorative objects were especially effective tools for encouraging piety and guiding the thoughts and prayers of believers. The Museum’s delicate remarkable Crib of the Infant Jesus (1974.121a-d), probably presented to a woman upon her entry into a convent, shows the imaginative ways artists accommodated specific customs of private devotion.
Painted portraits were an especially popular means of recording likenesses of patrons and, perhaps more than any other genre, demonstrate the abiding interest of Netherlandish artists in precisely rendering the tangible reality of the visible world. The painstaking detail and attention to light apparent in Petrus Christus‘s Portrait of a Carthusian (49.7.191) and Hans Memling’s portraits of Tommaso and Maria Portinari (14.40.626-27), the latter probably commissioned on the occasion of the couple’s wedding, serve to enhance the distinctly private and momentary character of these likenesses. Portraits were used to mark personal accomplishments and bonds of friendship, as does Rogier van der Weyden’s image of Francesco d’Este (32.100.43), which was probably given by the sitter to a friend or fellow member of his court.
Costly materials and sophisticated workmanship combined to make art highly valued as interior decoration and as a reflection of wealth or status. Tapestries were particularly expensive and visible ways to decorate the home and demonstrate the residents’ ideals (Tapestry with the Annunciation, 45.76), while other objects intended for domestic use shed light on the secular interests of the period. Popular games like playing cards (Set of Fifty-Two Playing Cards, 1983.515.1-52), and domestic activities like eating or drinking (Plate with a Pelican, 64.101.1498) attracted the incisive talents of decorative artists. Certain objects, like the Lehman Collection’s Aquamanile with Aristotle Ridden by Phyllis (1975.1.1416), suggest the fluidity of utilitarian and decorative categories, and usefully remind us that amidst the contemplative, spiritual world of the Northern Renaissance, its citizens sought lively entertainment and humorous distraction as well. Art is perhaps our most informative guide to the multifaceted private lives of the Burgundian Netherlands.