On Carolingian Book Painters: The Ottoboni Gospels and Its Transfiguration Master

Article excerpt

Although Jan Steen is a famously funny painter, the only picture in the splendid exhibition of his work at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., that caused me to laugh aloud was the self-portrait of 1670 (Fig. 1).1 On first viewing it, I did not know the pointed reference to Frans van Mieris's pretentious self-portrait of two or three years earlier,2 but I immediately recognized that the pose echoed a tradition of gentleman portraits such as Titian's gorgeous picture in London (sometimes said to represent Ariosto) or Nicolas Poussin's self-portrait of 1650.(3) The term "pose" is here a pun, mine and Steen's, intended to recognize a painter's claim to status as a humanist and a gentleman, a claim obviously contested and far from self-evident. These pictures can also represent a tradition of art historical scholarship in which the well-educated, self-assured, original artists of the Renaissance and later periods are contrasted with the occasionally skillful but conservative, and allegedly anonymous, craftsmen of the Middle Ages. From such a vantage point, artists of the early medieval period, even more likely to be seen as anonymous, are a fortiori dismissed as mere copyists whose individual contributions to the works of art they have bequeathed to us are absorbed in notions of "schools," regional or period styles, even ethnic categories.4 The reductive tradition of emphasizing the otherness of early medieval artists needs at the very least reconsideration on the basis of the surviving evidence.

This historiographical schema inscribes prejudices, and wishes, as much as it describes the past. Recent works such as Evelyn Welch's book have called attention to the "medieval" conditions still controlling much of the artistic life of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy, practical issues of materials and artists' complex negotiation of the terms of their art and their livelihood with shifting patrons.5 Contemporary northern Europe presents a similar picture of "medieval" practice, of masters closely associated with conservative guilds, practice from which an artist like Albrecht Durer sought to free himself, producing in 1498, after his return from Italy, a self-portrait posed very like Steen's and representing a "gentiluomo," to use the term that Durer deployed in a letter of a few years later.6 What he was reacting against is exemplified by the well-known contract of March 15, 1464, between the four administrators of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sacrament at the church of St. Peter in Louvain with Master Dieric Bouts for an altarpiece pertaining to the Holy Sacrament. The contract specifies the subject matter in general and appoints two theologians who shall "prescribe" to Master Bouts, specifies the amount he will be paid, the time during which the work must be completed, and many other details.7

The case study presented here suggests that the ad hoc, contractual, artistic practices illustrated by the Bouts altarpiece were not restricted to the late medieval period but may in some instances apply at a far earlier date than hitherto generally supposed, specifically, in the Carolingian period. Even in dealing with early medieval book illumination we should recognize that such patronage-heavy artistic practice by no means eliminates the importance of the individual artist, any more than it does in the case of Bouts. The members of the Louvain brotherhood hired Master Bouts because they recognized and appreciated and wished to enlist his skills; had their membership included someone capable of achieving the same result, they would presumably have employed that member and saved (perhaps, if he offered a discount) a good deal of money. The contract specifies certain terms but not the special qualities Master Bouts was expected to provide, qualities for which he was employed and for which he would be paid. Carolingian patrons may have behaved in an analogous manner, using local or in-house talent for some jobs but seeking distinguished outside assistance when available, or for special purposes. …