From Memling to Pourbus: The Forgotten Period

By Green, Laurence | Contemporary Review, October 1998 | Go to article overview

From Memling to Pourbus: The Forgotten Period


Green, Laurence, Contemporary Review


The time is the fifteenth century, the place Bruges: a bustling metropolis, the meeting place of diverse European states and an important financial centre. But also a city where the refined culture of the Court of Burgundy has a major influence on the international and local bourgeoisie. The Court, the bourgeoisie, and the clergy commissioned works of art that today make up the jewels of our artistic patrimony.

Yet at the end of the century Bruges suffered serious political, social and economic problems. However, the image of a city supposedly in terminal decline after 1500 is far from accurate. Bruges remained a city of European stature despite a series of setbacks. It was a place in which artists continued to display immense creativity, craftsmanly skill and perfection and their work responded sublimely to the tastes and needs of an international clientele.

The positive fifteenth-century image enjoyed by the proud inhabitants of Bruges persisted and this was perhaps one of the reasons so many city faces figured so often in paintings. Erasmus spoke of the 'Athens of the North'. The Florentine historian Guicciardini described Bruges as a city where one could enjoy the good life, a city where the quality of life was important, an evocation of the 'ideal city' as seen from the human perspective. Culture, courtesy and good manners were considered essential qualities and the refinement of Burgundy continued to manifest itself for decades. Art, music and literature flourished in this environment.

This golden era in the history of Bruges is splendidly evoked in the exhibition From Memling to Pourbus: The Forgotten Period which is being held at the historic Saint John's Hospital in Bruges, in both the nineteenth century buildings and the restored medieval hospital wards that now serve as the Memling Museum. The exhibition features over 200 works of art, documents, manuscripts, prints, tapestries, utensils, furniture and sculpture from a variety of museums and private collections in Europe and America, set out according to various themes relating to the political, social, economic and cultural background of the city at that time.

The point of departure is a representative selection of works from two great artists: Hans Memling (1430/5-1494) and Gerard David (d. 1523). With their ideas on natural representation, composition, spatial illusion, light and colour, and their artisan-like perfection they created, as it were, a synthesis of the work of their predecessors, the so-called 'Flemish Primitives'. At the same time they created a Bruges artistic identity, a canon for the coming generations.

Between these two poles of 'tradition and innovation', the panorama of a century of artistic endeavour, ending with the death of Pieter Pourbus (1510-1584), is presented from different angles. One of the studies portrays the evolution of the social position of the individuals who commissioned artistic work. The production to meet the demands of the open market resulted in certain changes in workshop practice. Other developments include the role played in the distribution of art works by the gallery known as the 'Pand' and the city's annual fairs, the importance of the art trade and production for export.

The idea of the Renaissance, with its acceptance of the return to classical Antiquity in its pure Italian form is difficult to apply to northern regions like Flanders. In the case of Bruges there was a gradual emanation of Italian influence. The Bruges artistic milieu of around 1500 probably had no need for radical change as there was no shortage of clients.

Artists came into contact with the art of the Italian Renaissance through the Italian colony residing in Bruges, paintings and prints imported into the city or produced there and the experience of Flemish artists who made the trip to Italy. Above all, they would have seen the temporary decorations produced on ceremonial occasions like the 'Joyful Entrances' of Charles V in 1515 and 1520.

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