Page images
PDF
EPUB

apostles are in the dress of the period. In the Netherlands, perhaps more than anywhere else, it was the age of wood-carving, the churches filled from floor to roof with sculptured altarpieces, screens, and choir fittings, episcopal thrones, tabernacles, and font covers, carrying high into the air their elaborately-carved pinnacles. An equal demand on the wood sculptor's art came also from the palaces of the wealthy, and, above all, so far as the happily preserved existing monuments can testify, from the H6tels de Ville and other corporation buildings of the great cities. Some names of the designers and sculptors of these great works we know. At Bruges, Jean de Valenciennes did most of the sculpture of the Town Hall, and carved in 1386 the richlyvaulted ceiling of the great Salle des Echevins. One example — the most widely-known perhaps—of the monumental decoration so frequently found in the municipal buildings, must suffice for all. It is the great chimney-piece of the Palais de Justice at Bruges. An excellent reproduction has for many years been included in the collection of casts in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It brings us, of course, to the very end of the period to which it has been necessary to restrict this book: indeed, in this regard, it somewhat oversteps our limits. Finished in 1532 by Guyot de Beaugrant and Lancelot Blondeel, it is only with the statues, busts, and other ornament in carved oak, by Herman Glosencamp, that we are particularly concerned, but it would be impossible to dissociate from them the rest of the work. A most admirable feature is the harmonious mixture of the black marble statues bordered with alabaster and the great oak figures. Spanish taste is apparent throughout, especially in the proportions of the figures, though the union of the two countries was not till some twenty years later. Still we know that de Beaugrant was in relations with Spain, and that he died there in 1551. The character of ornament applied to luxurious furniture differed not at all in Gothic times from that already noticed in French work. Magnificent examples are to be found in museums, ranging throughout the three centuries which we are now considering in their general aspect. It is fortunate that we are still able to examine so many important specimens, and in this way to supplement the deficiency of examples of ecclesiastical work resulting from iconoclastic devastations. The history of these incidents, indeed, singularly resembles our own. The internal troubles of religious wars from about 1566 to 1584 commenced the disasters. It is marvellous that anything in the churches, then, as it were, the museums of every country, survived the outrageous treatment to which they were subjected. M. Dehaisnes in his Art Chrdtien en Flandre tells us, quoting from contemporary documents, how the sectaries and their adherents 'jettent parterre et brisent touttes les images, autels, epitaphes, organes, sepultures, ornements, calices, sacrements et toute chose servant au service de Dieu.' (Letter of Margaret of Parma to Philippe 11.) Churches were whitewashed to adapt them to Calvinistic methods, amongst them Notre Dame of Antwerp, then one of the richest temples of Christendom. But worse almost was to come later, as in our own bad days of the seventeenth and of the first half of the nineteenth century, so close to our own time. On the establishment of the government of Albert and Isabella, the restoration of Catholic worship brought with it an immense impulse to revive its ancient splendour. It is the time of St. Charles Borromeo. He sends Jesuits to direct the new style of decoration adopted, and in accordance with the Roman ecclesiastical style, which took kindly to the rococo and theatrical in churches, the Jesuit system in sculpture triumphs. Whatever may have been the value to art in general, great as it was, of Italy's part in the Renaissance, we can only deplore the influence of St. Charles Borromeo on church ornament: an influence which pursues us to this day, in Jesuit taste in the decoration of altars and in statuary. The cult of the tawdry is almost elevated into a dogma. Instead of the instructive retable in carved wood or stone, of which Flemish art provided so many noble examples, this was replaced by the colonnaded high altar with interrupted pediment. Rubens is substituted for the glorious Primitives, and everywhere, in sanctuary and nave, on the altars, in pulpit, and in the newly introduced confessional boxes, appears the debased classic. Balusters instead of panels, twists and scrolls, vases and pyramids, obtrusive glories amongst impossible clouds, cherubs and angels of theatrical type, and Madonnas in copes and monstrous crowns, take the place of the pathetic figures of Gothic times. Everything seems to shout at us and to glory in its vulgarity.

CHAPTER IV

RETABLES IN FLANDERS AND GERMANY

THE genius of the masters of wood-carving is nowhere more admirably displayed than in the retables or altarpieces which, in Flemish art especially, have now to be considered. It is not to be wondered at that they should have brought forth the highest efforts and the most loving care, for, on the one hand, they were destined to complete and decorate the most holy part of a church, on the other, the sculptor was called in to supply in many cases a fitting framework for the masterpieces of a Van Eyck, a Memling, or a Van der Weyden. Not always, of course, was the carved work merely a framing for the painted pictures. Often, indeed, the entire retable is of wood, a picture with its perspective planes in some measure correctly disposed. In size and variety of arrangement also there were many differences. In the chapter on boxwoods we shall come across some extraordinary tours de force of tiny altarpieces, if we may so term them, microscopically carved. They are not, perhaps, strictly retables so much as objects for private devotion. Still we must place them in the same category. The altar and its surroundings in primitive times was characterized by an extreme simplicity and absence of ornament. It is sufficient to remember that the bishop sat behind it, in the apse, to show that not even a curtain intervened, much less so solid an erection as a reredos. Even when the priest took his place in front, and until quite late mediaeval times, there was nothing on the altar but the chalice, the book, and, while they were still used, the diptychs. The enclosure of the choir with its arrangement of stalls seems to have been approximately coeval with the appearance of great fixed altarpieces. The earliest examples which we possess of both date from the thirteenth century. At the same time, it is to be noticed that they appear to be already of a settled type —a type which for the choir stalls has scarcely varied down to the present day — so that for some time previous something in the nature of an altarpiece may have formed a groundwork for decoration. Metal work was the forerunner. In Italy we have the Pala d'oro of St. Mark's of the twelfth century, and goldsmith's and enamel work was probably general elsewhere, to give way to stone or wood, more or less according to locality. In the fourteenth century we arrive at an age when everything that ingenuity could suggest tended to exaggerate novel ideas in architectural arrangements and the accessories of church furniture. Men's ideas were centred in the church. It was the mainspring whence proceeded all their interests and even their recreations. In the smallest village the adornment of the church occupied every mind, and possessing a higher appreciation of the beautiful and a more general diffusion of good taste than nowadays, people were ever on the look-out for a suggestion of novel ideas culminating at times in extravagances for the mere pleasure of doing things in some startlingly original manner. The earliest fixed construction corresponding with the later triptychs or polyptychs is the retable carved in soft limestone formerly in the church of the Carriere Saint-Denis at Paris: a picture in stone forming a kind of screen at the back of and resting on the altar. It was nowhere the custom to make the altar a fixture against the east wall. There was a space between, and the early retable served to support and conceal a large

« PreviousContinue »