Visualising Cohesion, Identity and Piety: Altarpieces of Guilds and Brotherhoods in Early Netherlandish Painting
International conference Material Culture - Präsenz und Sichtbarkeit von Künstlern, Zünften und Bruderschaften in der Vormoderne/ Presence and Visibility of Artists, Guilds, Brotherhoods in the Premodern Era
Contributor(s)UCL - SSH/INCA - Institut des civilisations, arts et lettres
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AbstractDevotional portraits – best known as “donor portraits” – are an important phenomenon in Early Netherlandish painting. The fifteenth century in particular saw a marked change in the popularity and diversity of religious paintings that include people portrayed in prayer. Whereas during the fourteenth century, this kind of paintings was the preserve of the most powerful of patrons (kings, princes, dukes…), during the fifteenth century it becomes increasingly popular amongst the nobility, the clergy and the emerging middle classes. The incentives of those who commissioned devotional portraits are complex: the driving forces are often a mixture of profound piety and a desire to assert one’s social position. By having themselves represented at prayer, the people portrayed hoped to ensure their salvation and to express their devotion to Christ, the Virgin and the saints. Furthermore, through the depiction of sumptuous clothes, jewels and coats of arms, they also use their portraits to emphasise their identity and their social status at the heart of society. The extant corpus of Early Netherlandish paintings (1400-1550) that include devotional portraits comprises no less than 720 items. This corpus is characterized by a great variety of formats (polyptychs, triptychs, diptychs single panels) and of ways of inserting the portraits in the work, but also by the variety of portraits types: whereas most of the people portrayed usually appear as part of a family, in a couple or as a member of a religious community, several paintings depict the members of a guild or a brotherhood in prayer. The aim of this paper is to analyse these specific paintings, nine of them being preserved. Compared to the total sum of Flemish paintings that include devotional portraits, paintings with portraits of guilds and brotherhoods in prayer are not common, but they are interesting for the fact that most of them present a similar structure and location of the portraits within it. Indeed, six of the nine altarpieces depicting members of guilds and brotherhoods offer a similar compositional scheme, in which the devotees are integrated in the same way. The Triptych of Saints Thomas and Matthias by Bernard van Orley (Brussels, KMSKB), commissioned by the guild of the carpenters and the coopers of Brussels, or the Altarpiece of the Legend of Saint Godelieve by a Bruges Master (New York, Metropolitan Museum) are fine examples of this kind of “corporative altarpieces”. Indeed, they generally take the form of a triptych, which depicts the life of the patron saint on the central panel and the inner wings, while the outer wings represent the members of the guilds in prayer in front of a hieratical figure of their preferred saint. The portrayal of the group can vary: the guild can appear as a whole, by bringing out the leader(s) within the group or by depicting the leader(s) alone. By focusing on the compositional and iconographical structures of these “corporative altarpieces”, their implications on the meanings of the object as well as to the original location of these altarpieces within the church, this paper will show that this visual formula carries out two specific functions in the life of the depicted association and expresses different visual messages: on one hand, praising the patron saint of the group and thus expressing the group’s piety and, on the other hand, reinforcing the identity of the guild or the brotherhood. The altarpiece thus acts on a devotional, as well as on a social level.