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Medieval piety on the move  

22 December 2016

Nicholas Cranfield on an anticipation of the Reformation changes

Musée des beaux arts, dijon

Seeking evidence in art: The Dijon Nativity by
Robert Campin, one of the paintings discussed
in Bishop Herbert’s book, reviewed here

Seeking evidence in art: The Dijon Nativity by
Robert Campin, one of the paintings discussed
in Bishop Herbert’s book, reviewed here

Foreshadowing the Reformation: Art and religion in the fifteenth-century Burgundian Netherlands
Christopher Herbert
Routledge £85 (978-1-138-68744-8)
Church Times Bookshop £77.50



WITH Bishop Herbert’s book, we are invited to look closely at Bur­gundian art in the 15th century and to consider it in the light of popular piety, such as liturgical dramas performed as “mystery plays”, and in view of the rise of individuality. Dr Herbert offers convincing evidence for a shift in the relation­ship be­tween God and man three generations before the events of the Reformation itself.

Art is one way of expressing the history of ideas, and this book un­­folds much of the spiritual dimen­sion of the likes of Robert Campin, Jan Van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Hans Memling, as we might hope.

At one point, Herbert follows Philip the Bold in death; the duke died in April 1404 near Brussels. By stages, his body was taken south­wards to Dijon, where it was interred five weeks later. On the sepulchre (which is poorly photo­graphed for the author’s purposes) the duke’s effigy lies on a black marble slab.

Beneath, 41 sculpted figures in procession are led by an acolyte with the holy water. As each of the mourning weepers is veiled, it is through the comportment of their bodies that the sculptor Claus de Werve (c.1380-1439) allows us to perceive how each respond to death. This is a strikingly early observation of the individual.

Occasionally I differ with the bishop’s closer readings; in the Van Eyck altarpiece, St John the Baptist stands at the left hand of Christ enthroned in majesty simply because he was patron of Ghent, and of the cathedral at the painting’s first commissioning. His book is open at Isaiah 40.1 as he points to the Christ.

Vittorio Emanuele is the more usual spelling of the names of both Savoyard kings, while the story that the Prado Deposition by van der Weyden from El Escorial was
res­cued from a shipwreck was discounted as early as 1604 by Carel van Mander.

My clerical colleagues in the deanery will be surprised to learn that the last of the Beguines died in April 2013, as we stayed last June for our annual retreat in the Ghent Beguinage with some very alive members of that household.


The Revd Dr Nicholas Cranfield is Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.

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