The Burgundian Netherlands refers to an area encompassing the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg) and northern France during the period when it was ruled by the dukes of Burgundy, from the end of the fourteenth to the end of the fifteenth century. Most of these territories came into the possession of the Burgundian dukes—who were descended from the French royal house of Valois—in 1384, with the death of Louis de Mâle, count of Flanders. Louis’ son-in-law Philip the Bold (1342–1404), first Valois duke of Burgundy, thus inherited the counties of Flanders, Artois, Rethel, Burgundy, and Nevers (through his wife, Margaret of Flanders), initiating an era of Burgundian governance that would last until 1477, when the duchy of Burgundy reverted to France, and the Netherlands passed to the Habsburg dynasty.
Though the process of territorial expansion and political control—referred to as Burgundization—led to revolts among the independent towns of the Low Countries, followed by bloody military suppressions, the era was also marked by tremendous artistic productivity and cultural growth. Already one of Europe’s richest centers of cloth production and an important trade hub, the Netherlands under Burgundian rule attracted and inspired some of the most talented artists of the Renaissance period. Following the reigns of Philip the Bold and his son John the Fearless (1371–1419, r. 1404–19), their successors Philip the Good (1396–1467, r. 1419–67) and Charles the Bold (1433–1477, r. 1467–77)—third and fourth Valois dukes of Burgundy—ruled through an increasingly centralized government and became celebrated art patrons. From 1441, the large court was based in Brussels, but since the dukes liked to travel from one residence to another, the impact of Burgundian patronage was widespread, stimulating the arts throughout the region.
The presence of the court naturally attracted the best artists. Bruges, an especially favored destination of the dukes, was home to such masters as Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, Hans Memling, and Gerard David. Appointed official court painter by Philip the Good, Van Eyck (active by 1422, died 1441) undertook artistic commissions and even traveled extensively on the duke’s behalf, on one occasion to Portugal to paint the betrothal portrait of Philip’s future wife Isabella. Rogier van der Weyden (ca. 1399–1464) settled in Brussels and, though not officially tenured, he too applied his prodigious talents to the service of the Burgundian court, painting portraits of Dukes Philip and Charles, as well as of members of their entourage. Manuscript illumination flourished under Burgundian patronage, as demonstrated by the numerous devotional and secular books produced for members of the court. Among these is the Breviary of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York (The Holy Virgins Greeted by Christ, 1975.1.2477), partially decorated by Simon Marmion (c. 1425–1489), who was hailed as the “prince of illumination.” The introductory presentation pages of such manuscripts provide us with some of our most informative and colorful glimpses of Burgundian ceremony (Presentation by Jean Wanquelin to Philip the Good of the Chroniques de Hainault). Small-scale religious panels painted for court members (The Lamentation, 1975.1.128) and votive images executed in precious metal allow us additional insight into the devotional practices of the ducal circle (votive image of Charles the Bold, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin).
Court pageantry was most visible in the ceremonial entries, ducal weddings, and meetings of the Order of the Golden Fleece, which were celebrated with extravagant decorations and grand civic tournaments. The court also stimulated local crafts and industries, such as the production of metalwork for armor and weapons (War Hat, 04.3.228), stone sculpture for funeral monuments (Mourner, 17.190.386), enamel and silver work for everyday and ceremonial objects (Beaker [“Monkey Cup”], 52.50), and ambitious tapestries, which helped decorate the vast interior spaces of Burgundian palaces and expressed the prevalent court taste for luxury goods.
Following the accession of Charles the Bold’s daughter, Mary of Burgundy (1457–1482) (Mary of Burgundy, 1975.1.137), in 1477, and her marriage to the future Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian in the same year, the impact of Burgundization was slowed and diluted. In the early sixteenth century, Mary and Maximilian’s daughter, Margaret of Austria (1480–1530) (Portrait of Margaret of Austria, 1975.1.130), who would become regent of the Netherlands, initiated an ambitious revival of Burgundian patronage—but under Habsburg rule.