The most diverse luxury goods are produced or traded in Bruges during the 17th and 18th centuries: embroidery, furniture, bells, and silverware, etc. The quality of the craftsmanship is often exquisite.
This is primarily due to the makers' talent. However, the craft guilds, associations of people that practise the same profession, also play an important role. They were set up in the Middle Ages and impose high quality standards on their members' production. For example, you cannot set up your own business until you have first successfully completed your masterpiece. The master craftsman and the guild stamp their products with identification marks to guarantee their quality.
The craft guilds are eager to demonstrate their importance. For example, they take part in processions as a group. Members wear magnificent silver shields, bearing the correct identification marks, of course.
Today, the craft guilds no longer exist, but master craftsmanship in Bruges lives on.
Joris Dumery, bell founder. François Rielandt, goldsmith. Master Lucas, tapestry designer. Franciscus De Vooght, locksmith…
These names probably mean nothing to you. They are the creators of all the beautiful things in this large display case, products of their master craftsmanship. They take centre stage here. We don't always know their names. And some objects are the result of anonymous collective work.
As you can see here: after the 1550s, and especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, many artistic trades and crafts flourish in Bruges. There are plenty of customers: merchants and entrepreneurs, the nobility and wealthy citizens, churches and monasteries, rich clergy. They all eagerly order luxury items produced using traditional craftsmanship. Their orders go to artisans in Bruges, but also elsewhere.
Most of the objects in the display case are made in Bruges, or have ended up here as a result of trade or a commission. They are made to be used, as decoration or to show off. Enjoy their abundance and diversity! And rest assured there are many more treasures to discover and admire in Bruges' churches, historical buildings, and museums.
A painting on linen, if you like, created using gold and silver thread and coloured silk... That’s how you could describe this antependium, produced in a Bruges workshop in the 1540s. We call it embroidery. The employees who worked at the atelier remain anonymous.
Antependium is from the Latin ‘to hang before’. And indeed, the textile hung in front of an altar, in this case in the convent church of the Bruges Augustinian sisters. It meant that the altar was always beautifully embellished and it served as a focal point for worshippers.
What can we see? 28 holy figures: Mary, the apostles, holy virgins. The architecture is reminiscent of the Late Gothic. But take a closer look: most figures appear twice! There is an explanation for this: this antependium has been created from decorated borders of other textiles from churches or monasteries, such as a chasuble, a priest’s cassock. The antependium is therefore recycled and it is an assemblage.
This giant weighs over 30 kilograms. It is a masterpiece of bronze casting, and a model of precision work. This device was used to weigh items such as gold, silver, and precious spices and herbs. A task that had to be meticulously performed, down to the gram.
See how exquisitely the casing is decorated with dragon heads and female busts. The casing contains ten small barrels or weights, which fit neatly inside each other. The total weight of all the barrels is equal to that of the casing, and each component weighs exactly twice as much as the smaller one that fits inside it. Talk about precision work.
Albertus Weinmann junior made this weight in Nuremberg, in Germany, in 1568. There were 33 blacksmiths and copper founders in his family! You can see the name of the city ‘Nuremberg’ twice in the inscription on the lid, as well as the coat of arms of the city, which specialised in producing weights.
It's 1 November 1754. We are looking at the stately meeting room of the Bruges guild of tailors. The six board members of the guild are sitting behind a long table. But what is the group of men on the left doing here? They are clearly poor. Well, it's All Saints' Day, and every year, on the first of November, the craft guild donates clothes to thirteen poor souls. The guild pays for this with money from the legacy of... Louis de Gruuthuse, whose will states that they must use the money to provide clothing for the poor.
The items of clothing lie waiting on the right. Two of the poor have already received their clothes and so they look like guild members. The two statues in between the three windows represent a Madonna and Saint Anna Anna is the patron saint of the craft guild. The painting on the left-hand side of the back wall is a group portrait of a previous executive board.
Guilds have existed since the Middle Ages. These associations united people working in the same profession. There was no choice: anyone who wanted to be, for example, a tailor, printer, silversmith or butcher in a city like Bruges, Ghent or Ypres had to join. Otherwise you couldn’t become an independent master. You could call it a form of protectionism: local practitioners of a profession controlled who practised that profession in their city. The guilds also guaranteed the quality of the products. They established rules and regulations for this purpose.
And they were social clubs. People met up there, the organisation paid for the funerals of members, and sometimes for the accommodation of retired former members or their widows. They also performed charitable work, as this painting shows.
You are looking at a so called hallmark plate, an extremely important piece of documentation. Why is it so important? Well, the plate records no fewer than 186 names of Bruges goldsmiths from the period 1567-1636. In addition to their names, you can see their identification mark, or hallmark. It’s a kind of logo. Goldsmiths had to mark all their products with it. This way, their professional organisation, the guild, knew who had made what. And the quality could be checked.
Thanks to this plate we know all the names and hallmarks of Bruges' goldsmiths spanning a period of seventy years. We can also deduce from this that many were related to each other. And just like the guild at the time, we still know who is responsible for creating a particular artefact!
If you wanted to become a master of a discipline, like these 186 goldsmiths, you first had to produce what was known as a masterpiece. The steel lock you can see here, with a partially visible mechanism, is one example, by a locksmith. Franciscus De Vooght produced it in 1794 to prove he had effectively mastered his profession after completing his apprenticeship with a master locksmith. When Franciscus’ masterpiece was approved, he was able to establish himself as a master in Bruges and become a member of the guild. The masterpiece served to protect the profession and the quality of the craftsmanship.
The year 1794 appears on the lock. An unfortunate case of bad timing, as this was the year the French Revolutionary Army invaded Flanders. Four years later, the guilds were finished, along with the obligation to produce a masterpiece.
Did Franciscus De Vooght continue to work as a locksmith? Probably, but we can't know for certain.