Belgium – The Academy Of Bruges

THE Académie des Beaux-Arts, which formerly occupied the Poorters Loodge, or Guild Hall of the citizens within the gates, has a small but valuable collection of pictures, removed from the destroyed Cathedral of St. Donation and other churches of Bruges, which well repays a visit. You will here have an excellent opportunity for studying Jan van Eyck, whose work I shall more particularly notice when we arrive at Ghent. It is interesting, however, here to compare him with his great successor, Memling, who is represented at the Academy by a fine tripych. The little gallery also contains some admirable works by Gerard David, one of the latest of the old School o,f Flemish painters, whose work may thus be observed here side by side with those of his two. chief predecessors. Owing to the ruinous state of the original building the collection has been transferred to a temporary apartment, beyond the Hospital Bridge, near the Church of Notre-Dame. No tourist should leave Bruges without visiting this interesting collection.

At present the Museum is situated in a house on the right hand side of the Rue Ste. Catherine, nearly opposite a new church. Go to it past the Hospital of St. John. Admission daily, fifty centimes per person.

Begin in the centre of the wall opposite the entrance.

(I) Jan van Eyck. Altar-piece, ordered by George van der Palen, for the High Altar of the original Cathedral of St. Donatian, of which he was a canon. The centre of the picture is occupied by the Madonna and Child, the face of Our Lady somewhat recalling German models. She sits in the apse of a church, probably St. Donatian. The Child, whom it is the fashion to describe as ” aged-looking,” fondles a parrot and grasps a bunch of flowers. To the left stands St. Donatian, the Arch-bishop, patron saint of the church for which this altar-piece was painted. He bears his usual symbol, the wheel with five lighted candles (as in the beautiful panel, by Gerard David, in the National Gallery at London). This is a fine and finely-painted figure. To the right, St. George, in full armour, admirably represented, but in an affected attitude, lifts his casque somewhat jauntily as he presents his namesake, the Canon George, to Our Lady. In all this we get a. touch of Burgundian courtliness : the event is represented as a state ceremonial. With his left hand the Saint supports his Red Cross banner. The portrait of the kneeling Canon himself — asthmatic, pudding-faced — is very admirable and lifelike, but by no means flattered. He grips his prayer-book with an old man’s tremulous hand. (For a profound criticism of this fine picture, see Conway.) The insipid Ma-donna, the rather foolish St. George, the fine portrait of the Canon, are all typical of Van Eyck’s manner. The accessories of architecture, decoration, and background, should also be carefully noted. The capitals of the columns and the knobs of glass in the window, as well as St. George’s costume, are elaborated in Van Eyck’s finest fashion.

(2) Jan van Eyck. Portrait of his wife, painted for presentation to the Bruges Guild of Painters, together with one of the artist himself, now undiscoverable. This is a fine though evidently unflattered portrait of a capable housewife, very stiffly arrayed in her best church-going costume. It deserves close inspection.

Above it, (3) Head of Christ, ascribed to Jan van Eyck, but in reality a poor and reduced copy of the picture at Berlin,

(d.) Memling. Triptych painted for Willem Moreel or Morelli, a member of a wealthy Savoyard family settled at Bruges. Like Jan van Eyck’s portrait of the two Arnolfini in London, and Hugo van der Goes’s triptych of the Portinari at Florence, this picture marks well the cosmopolitan character of old Bruges. In the central panel, St. Christopher, whose altar in the church of St. Jacques it adorned, wades with his staff through the water, feeling as he goes the increasing burden of the Christ-Child on his shoulder. For the legend, see Mrs. Jameson. To the left, above, is the diminutive figure of the hermit with his lantern, which always accompanies St. Christopher. The left foreground of the picture is occupied by St. Maurus, in his Benedictine costume; to the right is St. Giles (St. Egidius), the hermit, with the wounded doe, the arrow piercing the arm of the saint. The left wing represents the donor, Willem Moreel, under the care of his patron, St. William, who wears a hermit’s dress above his coat of armour. (When a saint places his hand on a votary’s shoulder, it usually implies that the votary is a namesake.) Behind are Moreel’s five sons. All these portraits, but particularly that of the donor and his eldest son, who closely resembles him, are admirable. The right wing represents the donor’s wife, Barbara, under the protection o,f her patron, St. Barbara, with her tower, showing as usual three windows, emblematic of the Holy Trinity. Behind the lady are her two daughters, one of whom is habited as a Benedictine nun, whence, doubtless, the introduction of St. Maurus into the main altar-piece. This fine triptych originally decorated an altar of St. Christopher in Moreel’s private chapel in the Church of St. Jacques. One of his daughters is the ” Sibylla Sambetha ” represented at the Hospital. The wings at the back represent in grisaille St. John the Baptist with the lamb, and St. George with the dragon. It was usual to paint the outer wings in grisaille or in low tones of colour, so that the splendour of the interior hues might burst upon the spectator as the triptych was opened.

(12) Attributed to Schoreel : really, by a master of the Brabant School. Death of the Virgin. Our Lady is represented on her death-bed, surrounded, as always, by the surviving apostles, who were miraculously collected together to her chamber. The faces are those of Flemish peasants or artisans. Above, Christ appears in glory, surrounded by a halo of cherubs, to receive her new-born soul. Two angels support his outer garment. This picture well shows the beginning of the later Flemish tendency.

Now return to No. 5, by Gerard David, on the other side of the great Van Eyck. This is a triptych, painted for Jean des Trompes, for the High Altar of the Lower Chapel of the Holy Blood. The central panel represents the Baptism of Christ. In the middle, the Saviour wades in the water of a diminutive Jordan, where the concentric circles show the increased careful study of nature. On the right-hand side of the picture, St. John the Baptist, patron saint of the donor, pours water on his head. The relative positions of these two figures, and of the angel to the left holding a robe, are conventional : they have descended from a very early period of art. In the Ravenna mosaics, the place of the angel is filled by the river-god of the Jordan with his urn, afterward transformed and Christianized into an angel with a towel. Look out in future for similar arrangements. The central figures are weak; but the robe of the angel is painted with Flemish minuteness. So are the flowers and leaves of the fore-ground. Above, the dove descends upon the head of the Saviour, while the Eternal Father pronounces from the skies the words, ” Behold my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

In the background are two other episodes : on the left, the preaching of St. John the Baptist, where Oriental costumes indicate the heathen ; on the right, St. John the Baptist pointing out Christ to his disciples with the words, ” Behold the Lamb of God.” The distance shows two towns and a fine landscape. Observe the admirable painting of the trees, with their good shadows ; also the ivy climbing up the trunk of one to the right. This picture is among the earliest in which the gloom of a wood is accurately represented : in many other respects it well illustrates the rise of landscape-painting. (For an exhaustive criticism, see Conway.) The left wing has a portrait of the donor, with his other patron, St. John the Evangelist, holding the cup. Be-side the donor kneels his little son Philip. This portrait, the face and foot of the Evangelist, the fur of the donor’s robe, the crane in the background, and many other accessories deserve close attention. Two figures in the background dimly foreshadow Teniers. The right wing has a portrait of the donor’s wife, Elizabeth, with her four daughters. Behind her stands her patroness, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, in Franciscan robes, with the crown on her head and the double crown and book in her hands, as on the statuette at the door of the Béguinage. The painting of a rosary here is excellent. The outer wings (turn them back) show, on the left, the Madonna and Child with a bunch of grapes; on the right, the donor’s second wife Madeleine, introduced by her patroness, St. Mary Madeleine, who holds the alabaster pot of ointment. By the lady’s side kneels her daughter. The background consists of a view, probably in the Bruges of that period. Painted about 1507.

(6 and 7) Gerard David. The Punishment of the Unjust Judge. These two panels are of a type commonly set up in courts of justice as a warning to evil-doers. They were ordered by the Bruges magistracy. You will see a similar pair by Dierick Bouts in Brussels. The story, a horrid one, is taken from Herodotus. Sisamnes was a judge in . Persia whom King Cambyses detected receiving a bribe and ordered to be flayed alive. The king then stretched his skin on the seat of judgment, and appointed the son of Sisamnes to sit in his father’s place, that he might remember to avoid a like fate. The first picture represents, in the background, the bribery. In the foreground, King Cambyses, in a rich, embroidered robe, demonstrates on his fingers the guilt of the unjust judge.

Sisamnes is seized on his tribunal by a man of the people; courtiers, lawyers, and burgesses looking on. The expression on his face and the painting of all the accessories is admirable. In the second picture we have the flaying of the unjust judge, a horrible scene, powerfully rendered. Cambyses stands by, holding his sceptre, surrounded by courtiers who recall the last age of the Burgundian dominion. In the background (as a subsequent episode) the son of Sisamnes is seen sitting in his father’s place : behind him hangs the skin of the father. Architecture, landscape, ropes, and all other accessories of this painful picture should be carefully noted.

(15) J. Prévost. Last Judgment. Below, the dead are rising, half naked, from the tomb, girt only with their shrouds; the good receiving garments from angels, and the bad hurried away to a very Flemish and unimpressive Hell. Above, Christ as Judge holds the sword. Two angels blow out the words of blessing or malediction. On the spectator’s left, Our Lady shows the breast that suckled the Redeemer. Behind her are St. Peter with the key, St. Paul with the sword, St. Bartholomew with the knife, and other saints. On the right are St. John the Baptist with the lamb, King David with the harp, Moses, horned (as always), with the tables of the law, and a confused group of saints. This picture is rather curious than beautiful. Above it is a later treatment of the same subject by Van Coornhuuse, interesting for comparison as showing the usual persistence of types and the conventional grouping of the individual figures. Compare especially the corresponding personages in the lower left hand corners.

A few other pictures skied on this wall deserve passing notice. 29 is a Death and the Miser, of the School of Quentin Matsys. 17, by Lancelot Blondeel, the architect of the great chimneypiece of the Franc de Bruges, represents St. Luke painting Our Lady, in one of the fantastic frames in which this painter delighted. 18, by the same, has a St. George and the Dragon, with the Princess Cleodolind looking on. Around it are four smaller scenes of his martyrdom:—he was boiled, burnt with torches, dragged by a horse, and finally decapitated. 11 is a good diptych of the Flemish school, by an unknown contemporary of Gerard David. It represents, left, a donor, with his patron St. John the Almoner, holding his symbol, a sheaf of corn. On the right, his wife with her patroness, St. Godeliva. 28 is an Adoration of the Magi, where the Three Kings again illustrate the three ages of man and the three continents. Beside it is a Nativity which exhibits all the traditional features already noted.

The end wall has in its centre a tolerably good. Adoration of the Magi, of the German School, fifteenth century. Note once more the Three Kings, of whom the youngest is a Moor. Left of this, a * drawing, by Jan van Eyck, of St. Barbara, which should be closely inspected. She holds a palm of martyrdom. In the background, workmen build her tower. It is interesting as a scene of real life at this period. This is a replica of the well-known picture at Antwerp. To the right, two coloured drawings by Gerard David from the life of St. John the Baptist. Above these hangs a tolerable P. Pourbus of the Last Judgment, valuable for comparison with the two previous treatments of the same subject on the principal wall. Go from one to the other once or twice. Later painters of the Renaissance use this solemn theme as a mere excuse for obtruding the nude — and often the vulgar nude — into churches. On the same wall are a good triptych in grisaille by P. Pourbus (Way to Calvary, Descent from the Cross, Resurrection; from Notre Dame at Damme), and other pictures.

The remaining walls have portraits and other works, from the seventeenth century down-wards, most of which need no explanation. A few of them, indeed, are not without merit. But, as I ,have before observed, it is best in medieval Bruges to confine oneself to the thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, and early sixteenth centuries, leaving the rise of the Renaissance, and the later Flemish School of painting, to occupy us at Antwerp, where they can be studied to far greater advantage.