In the 16th century, Bruges produced two artistic dynasties that remained active until well into the 17th century: the Claeissens and the Blondeel-Pourbus families. The Claeissens continued to dominate the Bruges art market with allegorical compositions whose meaning is sometimes hard to decipher.
Pieter Pourbus trained both his son Frans I and his grandson Frans II. Both enjoyed success beyond Bruges. With his realistic portraits, Frans II even made it to the French court, as well as that of the Archdukes Albert and Isabella. He painted the latter’s official portraits, which were endlessly copied, and which shape our view of them to this day.
In Antwerp and far beyond, the Bruegel dynasty continued to exert influence. The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist was repeatedly copied by the sons of Pieter Bruegel I, and to a very high standard. People were fascinated by the way in which he conceived landscapes, as is apparent from Roelandt Savery’s painting A Wooded Landscape with Cows and Goats.
The Persian king Cyrus invaded the land of the Massagetae after their queen, Tomyris, declined his proposal of marriage. Her son was imprisoned and committed suicide. In a final battle, Cyrus died. The vengeful Tomyris dunked his head in a pitcher of blood so that he could finally quench his murderous thirst. This judgement panel was commissioned by the judges of the Brugse Vrije.
The style of the Antwerp portrait painter Adriaen Key is characterised by a marked realism. This man, probably a scholar, wears a beret and a fur-trimmed toga and is clasping a pair of gloves. The white millstone ruff not only lends him status, but also illuminates his face against the black clothing. His appearance corresponds with contemporaneous Flemish humanist portraits.
This fantastic portrait is an early work by Frans Pourbus II. Shortly after completing it, he became court painter to Albrecht and Isabella and his style became more formal. The Latin inscription explains who is depicted: Petrus Ricardus. The books by Galenus and Hippocrates on the table offer clues as to his function. He was a professor at Leuven University, the city doctor of Ghent, and court physician to the viceroys. Emblazoned upon the coat of arms is his motto nil temere: nothing rash.
In 1599/1600 Frans Pourbus II, Pieter’s grandson, was commissioned by the archdukes Albert and Isabella to paint their official portraits. These works were much copied, especially in small, more mobile bust portraits, such as the one we see here. In the original versions, the noble couple are depicted full length, idealised but with a certain degree of realism. Pourbus’ fame as a portrait painter spread through court circles in the whole of Europe.
This work commemorates the Union of Brussels, an agreement that heralded a short period of peace between Spain and the Netherlands. The fragility of the accord is conveyed by the figures who try to prevent weapons from being crushed by the chariot upon which Venus is enthroned. Kneeling before the carriage are the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands, while the Bruges aldermen and mayor Joris van Brakele, in red, stand behind.
In this crowded panel, first take a look beneath the chariot, which is being drawn by donkeys. You can see weapons being crushed. A number of unsavoury figures, such as the recumbent naked man, are trying in vain to stop this train of events. One of the seated figures in the chariot is Peace, who holds a palm branch in her hand.
Pieter Claeissens the Younger painted this work between 9 January 1577 and 2 September 1578, in response to a peace accord during the Wars of Religion: The Union of Brussels was agreed between Spain and the Netherlands in January 1577. The chariot is travelling towards the Seventeen Provinces, that is to say the Low Countries. In this work, they are represented by seventeen kneeling women.
Battles take place in the background, above the figures. This shows that the peace is still fragile. Describing the combatants are the Latin words: Furor (or Fury), Violentia (or Violence) and Discordia (or Discord). Ratio (or Reason) and Populus (or the Populace) are their adversaries. The trilingual text at the bottom describes the scene.
Who are the thirteen men in contemporary clothing behind the chariot? Perhaps the twelve aldermen of Bruges being led by the mayor? Thanks to a surviving portrait, the latter is the only figure that we can identify: Mayor Joris van Brakele was a joint signatory to the peace accord. This painting was probably intended for the town hall of Bruges. The artist found inspiration for the composition in an engraving.
The peace was temporary, as we now know. The Eighty Years’ War soon resumed and would drag on for decades.
A large proportion of the 16th-century portrayals of saints were dedicated to the Church Father, Jerome, who is known for his translations of the Bible. He is often depicted in his study or in a landscape accompanied by a lion. Here, he is doing penance before a crucifix. The skull reminds us of the transience of life. As a symbol of contemplation, Jerome was an example for the humanists.
During his trip to Italy, Van Hemessen became familiar with Renaissance art. Here, he based himself on Raphael’s Holy Family of Francis I, which he saw in the chateau of the French king at Fontainebleau. Van Hemessen scrapped the peripheral figures from Raphael’s composition, so that all attention is focused on the loving bond between mother and child, and on the striking landscape in which the rest on the flight into Egypt is depicted.
In the 16th century, Flemish artists increasingly travelled to Italy to familiarise themselves with antiquity and the trends of Italian Renaissance art. Flemish artists would often appropriate compositions by Italian artists and sculptors. So too in this depiction of Christ the Redeemer by Willem Key, which is clearly based on Michelangelo’s sculpture from 1519 in the Santa Maria sopra Minerva church in Rome.
From 1603, Roelant Savery caused a furore at the court of Rudolf II in Prague. His meticulous painting and drawing style is reminiscent of Pieter Bruegel I. After 1613, he returned to the Low Countries, but the romantic environment of Prague remained a constant source of inspiration. In this work, he combines this attachment with his new interest in the portrayal of cattle.
Pieter Bruegel’s popular paintings were already being enthusiastically copied immediately after his death. This version barely diverges from the original and was almost certainly made by his son Pieter the Younger. John is preaching before a colourful group of people. This is an allusion to the forbidden hedge sermons by reformist preachers.
Pieter Bruegel is widely regarded as the 16th century’s greatest Southern Netherlandish painter. This is a superb copy of one of his masterpieces, The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist. The original hangs in Budapest.
According to the gospel, John foretold the coming of Christ. Here we can see him preaching in a forest to a colourful group of people. They are fascinating to study in detail. When contemplating this work, Bruegel’s contemporaries would have undoubtedly been reminded of the illegal sermons given by reformist preachers outside the city walls – the so-called ‘Hagen Sermons’.
Many of Bruegel’s paintings enjoyed widespread popularity. This meant that after his death in 1569, they were copied extensively. His talented sons, Jan, and above all Pieter the Younger, also established a thriving trade in copies. We are also aware of dozens of replicas of this work. This copy hardly differs from the original. Thanks to the (city’s) brand mark on one of the wooden planks, we know that the panel is from Antwerp and that it was produced between 1618 and 1626 in the studio of Pieter Bruegel the Younger. But it could also be by his younger brother Jan.
Mary and her son rest during their flight to Egypt. Their travel case and provisions lie at their feet. Joseph approaches with a pitcher of water or wine. The detailed landscape offers a view of a large farm to the left and of a broad valley in atmospheric perspective to the right. The landscape and the figures were painted by various hands, a common practice in 16th-century Antwerp.
Depictions of the young John the Baptist and Jesus, with or without the Holy Family, were popular with Italian Renaissance painters such as Leonardo da Vinci. But also with Flemish artists such as Jan van Hemessen and Cornelis van Cleve. With his chiaroscuro technique and the soft contours of the sfumato shading, it is clear that Van Cleve was inspired by the Italian masters.
This map of the powerful Abbey of the Dunes at Koksijde testifies to Pourbus’ work as a surveyor and cartographer. It shows a walled complex of 25 hectares, a detailed legend and the building materials used. When Pourbus completed the plan in 1580, the abbey had recently been heavily plundered during the Wars of Religion. The planned rebuilding never actually took place, because the monks remained in Bruges, the city to which they had fled.
This is a unique work by Pieter Pourbus, who also has other paintings on display in the museum. The artist was an active member of the Bruges painters’ guild and participated fully in the city’s cultural life. Moreover, Pourbus was also a surveyor and cartographer like several of his colleagues, including Lancelot Blondeel.
You can see the proof of this in the work: a square plan, painted in oils, of the famous Abbey of the Dunes at Koksijde. It can confidently be described as a model in paint, and it comes with a detailed key. You see the building from a bird’s-eye perspective, with the essential elements that we see in all large abbeys: the main place of worship, the guest quarters, the farm with a large barn, and at a distance, the artisan workshops. The entire 25-hectare site is surrounded by walls.
There is a grim story behind this plan: when Pourbus completed it in 1580, after many on-site observations and measurements, the abbey had just been heavily plundered during the Wars of Religion. The monks then fled to Bruges. Their abbey was also affected by flooding. Pourbus depicted the state of affairs prior to 1578, the aim being to rebuild the abbey as quickly as possible. Building materials can even be seen on the right.
This makes the plan a unique source of information about one of Flanders’ most important medieval abbeys. Half a century later, the monks would settle permanently in Bruges.
Mars, the god of war, tramples Ignorance, while Victoria, the goddess of victory, places a laurel wreath upon his head. They are surrounded by personifications of the seven arts and sciences. To the left are: Grammar (book), Geography (compass and globe), Astronomy (heavenly sphere), Rhetoric (caduceus) and Dialectic (parrot); whilst to the right are Music (shawm) and Arithmetic (wax tablet). Painting (palette and brushes) is walking towards the group. She claims her place among the Liberal Arts, which illustrates a contemporaneous 16th-century debate.
We are in Bruges. And we are looking at a work by the Bruges-based painter Antonius Claeissens. In the background, on the right, you can see a view of the city from the Minnewater, also known as the Lake of Love, with canons on the city ramparts. The mountainous landscape in the background, to the left, is a fantasy. But what are the eight young women and three men doing in the foreground? And the angel who descends towards them?
The central figure is Mars, the Roman god of War. He subdues a naked man with his foot and binds his hands: the poor man with the donkey’s ears represents Ignorance. Sitting and standing around them are women in historical clothing. They represent the seven arts and sciences. From the left we see: Grammar, who is writing in a book, and Geography, with the compass and the globe. Astronomy is holding up a celestial sphere, and Rhetoric clasps a serpent-entwined rod. Dialectic is accompanied by a parrot. To the right, Music is playing on a flute and Arithmetic is writing on a wax tablet.
An eighth woman enters the painting on the right, together with a soldier. She represents Painting and is holding an artist’s palette and brushes. The angel is the goddess of victory, Victoria. She will attempt to place a laurel wreath on Mars’ head.
What is the hidden message behind this allegorical painting from 1605? That it is better to practise the Liberal Arts than to remain ignorant. But it also shows the art of painting claiming its place within the Liberal Arts. In other words: that painters want to be recognised as artists. That they are more than just artisans! In the 16th century, this was a subject of intense debate.