Early Netherlandish painting refers to the work of artists, sometimes known as the Flemish Primitives, active in the Burgundian and Habsburg Netherlands during the 15th- and 16th-century Northern Renaissance; especially in the flourishing cities of Bruges, Ghent, Tournai and Brussels Their work follows the International Gothic style and begins approximately with Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck in the early 1420s It lasts at least until the death of Gerard David in 1523, although many scholars extend it to the start of the Dutch Revolt in 1566 or 1568 (Max J Friedländer’s acclaimed surveys run through Pieter Bruegel the Elder) Early Netherlandish painting coincides with the Early and High Italian Renaissance but is seen as an independent artistic culture, separate from the Renaissance humanism that characterised developments in Italy Because these painters represent the culmination of the northern European medieval artistic heritage and the incorporation of Renaissance ideals, they are sometimes categorised as belonging to both the Early Renaissance and Late Gothic
The major Netherlandish painters include Campin, van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Dieric Bouts, Petrus Christus, Hans Memling, Hugo van der Goes and Hieronymus Bosch These artists made significant advances in natural representation and illusionism, and their work typically features complex iconography Their subjects are usually religious scenes or small portraits, with narrative painting or mythological subjects being relatively rare Landscape is often richly described but relegated as a background detail before the early 16th century The painted works are generally oil on panel, either as single works or more complex portable or fixed altarpieces in the form of diptychs, triptychs or polyptychs The period is also noted for its sculpture, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass and carved retables
The first generations of artists were active during the height of Burgundian influence in Europe, when the Low Countries became the political and economic centre of Northern Europe, noted for its crafts and luxury goods Assisted by the workshop system, panels and a variety of crafts were sold to foreign princes or merchants through private engagement or market stalls A majority were destroyed during waves of iconoclasm in the 16th and 17th centuries; today only a few thousand examples survive Early northern art in general was not well regarded from the early 17th to the mid-19th century, and the painters and their works were not well documented until the mid-19th century Art historians spent almost another century determining attributions, studying iconography, and establishing bare outlines of even the major artists’ lives Attribution of some of the most significant works is still debated
The term “Early Netherlandish art” applies broadly to painters active during the 15th and 16th centuries in the northern European areas controlled by the Dukes of Burgundy and later the Habsburg dynasty These artists became an early driving force behind the Northern Renaissance and the move away from the Gothic style In this political and art-historical context, the north follows the Burgundian lands which straddled areas that encompass parts of modern France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The Netherlandish artists have been known by a variety of terms “Late Gothic” is an early designation which emphasises continuity with the art of the Middle Ages In the early 20th century, the artists were variously referred to in English as the “Ghent-Bruges school” or the “Old Netherlandish school” “Flemish Primitives” is a traditional art-historical term borrowed from the French primitifs flamands that became popular after the famous exhibition in Bruges in 1902 and remains in use today, especially in Dutch and German In this context, “primitive” does not refer to a perceived lack of sophistication, but rather identifies the artists as originators of a new tradition in painting Erwin Panofsky preferred the term ars nova (“new art”), which linked the movement with innovative composers of music such as Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois, who were favoured by the Burgundian court over artists attached to the lavish French court When the Burgundian dukes established centres of power in the Netherlands, they brought with them a more cosmopolitan outlook According to Otto Pächt a simultaneous shift in art began sometime between 1406 and 1420 when a “revolution took place in painting”; a “new beauty” in art emerged, one that depicted the visible rather than the metaphysical world.
Terminology and scope
The term “Early Netherlandish art” applies broadly to painters active during the 15th and 16th centuries in the northern European areas controlled by the Dukes of Burgundy and later the Habsburg dynasty. These artists became an early driving force behind the Northern Renaissance and the move away from the Gothic style. In this political and art-historical context, the north follows the Burgundian lands which straddled areas that encompass parts of modern France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The Netherlandish artists have been known by a variety of terms. “Late Gothic” is an early designation which emphasises continuity with the art of the Middle Ages. In the early 20th century, the artists were variously referred to in English as the “Ghent-Bruges school” or the “Old Netherlandish school”. “Flemish Primitives” is a traditional art-historical term borrowed from the French primitifs flamands that became popular after the famous exhibition in Bruges in 1902 and remains in use today, especially in Dutch and German. In this context, “primitive” does not refer to a perceived lack of sophistication, but rather identifies the artists as originators of a new tradition in painting. Erwin Panofsky preferred the term ars nova (“new art”), which linked the movement with innovative composers of music such as Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois, who were favoured by the Burgundian court over artists attached to the lavish French court. When the Burgundian dukes established centres of power in the Netherlands, they brought with them a more cosmopolitan outlook. According to Otto Pächt a simultaneous shift in art began sometime between 1406 and 1420 when a “revolution took place in painting”; a “new beauty” in art emerged, one that depicted the visible rather than the metaphysical world.
In the 19th century the Early Netherlandish artists were classified by nationality, with Jan van Eyck identified as German and van der Weyden (born Roger de la Pasture) as French. Scholars were at times preoccupied as to whether the school’s genesis was in France or Germany. These arguments and distinctions dissipated after World War I, and following the leads of Friedländer, Panofsky, and Pächt, English-language scholars now almost universally describe the period as “Early Netherlandish painting”, although many art historians view the Flemish term as more correct.
In the 14th century, as Gothic art gave way to the International Gothic era, a number of schools developed in northern Europe. Early Netherlandish art originated in French courtly art, and is especially tied to the tradition and conventions of illuminated manuscripts. Modern art historians see the era as beginning with 14th-century manuscript illuminators. They were followed by panel painters such as Melchior Broederlam and Robert Campin, the latter generally considered the first Early Netherlandish master, under whom van der Weyden served his apprenticeship. Illumination reached a peak in the region in the decades after 1400, mainly due to the patronage of Burgundian and House of Valois-Anjou dukes such as Philip the Bold, Louis I of Anjou and Jean, Duke of Berry. This patronage continued in the low countries with the Burgundian dukes, Philip the Good and his son Charles the Bold. The demand for illuminated manuscripts declined towards the end of the century, perhaps because of the costly production process in comparison to panel painting. Yet illumination remained popular at the luxury end of the market, and prints, both engravings and woodcuts, found a new mass market, especially those by artists such as Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Dürer.
Following van Eyck’s innovations, the first generation of Netherlandish painters emphasised light and shadow, elements usually absent from 14th-century illuminated manuscripts. Biblical scenes were depicted with more naturalism, which made their content more accessible to viewers, while individual portraits became more evocative and alive. Johan Huizinga said that art of the era was meant to be fully integrated with daily routine, to “fill with beauty” the devotional life in a world closely tied to the liturgy and sacraments. After about 1500 a number of factors turned against the pervasive Northern style, not least the rise of Italian art, whose commercial appeal began to rival Netherlandish art by 1510, and overtook it some ten years later. Two events symbolically and historically reflect this shift: the transporting of a marble Madonna and Child by Michelangelo to Bruges in 1506, and the arrival of Raphael’s tapestry cartoons to Brussels in 1517, which were widely seen while in the city. Although the influence of Italian art was soon widespread across the north, it in turn had drawn on the 15th-century northern painters, with Michelangelo’s Madonna based on a type developed by Hans Memling.
Netherlandish painting ends in the narrowest sense with the death of Gerard David in 1523. A number of mid- and late-16th-century artists maintained many of the conventions, and they are frequently but not always associated with the school. The style of these painters is often dramatically at odds with that of the first generation of artists. In the early 16th century, artists began to explore illusionistic depictions of three dimensions. The painting of the early 16th century can be seen as leading directly from the artistic innovations and iconography of the previous century, with some painters, following the traditional and established formats and symbolism of the previous century, continuing to produce copies of previously painted works. Others came under the influence of Renaissance humanism, turning towards secular narrative cycles, as biblical imagery was blended with mythological themes. A full break from the mid-15th-century style and subject matter was not seen until the development of Northern Mannerism around 1590. There was considerable overlap, and the early- to mid-16th-century innovations can be tied to the Mannerist style, including naturalistic secular portraiture, the depiction of ordinary (as opposed to courtly) life, and the development of elaborate landscapes and cityscapes that were more than background views.
The origins of the Early Netherlandish school lie in the miniature paintings of the late Gothic period. This was first seen in manuscript illumination, which after 1380 conveyed new levels of realism, perspective and skill in rendering colour, peaking with the Limbourg brothers and the Netherlandish artist known as Hand G, to whom the most significant leaves of the Turin-Milan Hours are usually attributed. Although his identity has not been definitively established, Hand G, who contributed c. 1420, is thought to have been either Jan van Eyck or his brother Hubert. According to Georges Hulin de Loo, Hand G’s contributions to the Turin-Milan Hours “constitute the most marvelous group of paintings that have ever decorated any book, and, for their period, the most astounding work known to the history of art”.
Jan van Eyck’s use of oil as a medium was a significant development, allowing artists far greater manipulation of paint. The 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari claimed van Eyck invented the use of oil paint; a claim that, while exaggerated, indicates the extent to which van Eyck helped disseminate the technique. Van Eyck employed a new level of virtuosity, mainly from taking advantage of the fact that oil dries so slowly; this gave him more time and more scope for blending and mixing layers of different pigments, and his technique was quickly adopted and refined by both Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden. These three artists are considered the first rank and most influential of the early generation of Early Netherlandish painters. Their influence was felt across northern Europe, from Bohemia and Poland in the east to Austria and Swabia in the south.
A number of artists traditionally associated with the movement had origins that were neither Dutch nor Flemish in the modern sense. Van der Weyden was born Roger de la Pasture in Tournai. The German Hans Memling and the Estonian Michael Sittow both worked in the Netherlands in a fully Netherlandish style. Simon Marmion is often regarded as an Early Netherlandish painter because he came from Amiens, an area intermittently ruled by the Burgundian court between 1435 and 1471. The Burgundian duchy was at its peak influence, and the innovations made by the Netherlandish painters were soon recognised across the continent. By the time of van Eyck’s death, his paintings were sought by wealthy patrons across Europe. Copies of his works were widely circulated, a fact that greatly contributed to the spread of the Netherlandish style to central and southern Europe. Central European art was then under the dual influence of innovations from Italy and from the north. Often the exchange of ideas between the Low Countries and Italy led to patronage from nobility such as Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, who commissioned manuscripts from both traditions.
The first generation were literate, well educated and mostly from middle-class backgrounds. Van Eyck and van der Weyden were both highly placed in the Burgundian court, with van Eyck in particular assuming roles for which an ability to read Latin was necessary; inscriptions found on his panels indicate that he had a good knowledge of both Latin and Greek. A number of artists were financially successful and much sought-after in the Low Countries and by patrons across Europe. Many artists, including David and Bouts, could afford to donate large works to the churches, monasteries and convents of their choosing. Van Eyck was a valet de chambre at the Burgundian court and had easy access to Philip the Good. Van der Weyden was a prudent investor in stocks and property; Bouts was commercially minded and married the heiress Catherine “Mettengelde” (“with the money”). Vrancke van der Stockt invested in land.
The Early Netherlandish masters’ influence reached artists such as Stefan Lochner and the painter known as the Master of the Life of the Virgin, both of whom, working in mid-15th-century Cologne, drew inspiration from imported works by van der Weyden and Bouts. New and distinctive painterly cultures sprang up; Ulm, Nuremberg, Vienna and Munich were the most important artistic centres in the Holy Roman Empire at the start of the 16th century. There was a rise in demand for printmaking (using woodcuts or copperplate engraving) and other innovations borrowed from France and southern Italy. Some 16th-century painters borrowed heavily from the previous century’s techniques and styles. Even progressive artists such as Jan Gossaert made copies, such as his reworking of van Eyck’s Madonna in the Church. Gerard David linked the styles of Bruges and Antwerp, often travelling between the cities. He moved to Antwerp in 1505, when Quentin Matsys was the head of the local painters’ guild, and the two became friends.
By the 16th century the iconographic innovations and painterly techniques developed by van Eyck had become standard throughout northern Europe. Albrecht Dürer emulated van Eyck’s precision. Painters enjoyed a new level of respect and status; patrons no longer simply commissioned works but courted the artists, sponsoring their travel and exposing them to new and wide-ranging influences. Hieronymus Bosch, active in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, remains one of the most important and popular of the Netherlandish painters. He was anomalous in that he largely forewent realistic depictions of nature, human existence and perspective, while his work is almost entirely free of Italian influences. His better-known works are instead characterised by fantastical elements that tend towards the hallucinatory, drawing to some extent from the vision of hell in van Eyck’s Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych. Bosch followed his own muse, tending instead towards moralism and pessimism. His paintings, especially the triptychs, are among the most significant and accomplished of the late Netherlandish period
The Reformation brought changes in outlook and artistic expression as secular and landscape imagery overtook biblical scenes. Sacred imagery was shown in a didactic and moralistic manner, with religious figures becoming marginalized and relegated to the background. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, one of the few who followed Bosch’s style, is an important bridge between the Early Netherlandish artists and their successors. His work retains many 15th-century conventions, but his perspective and subjects are distinctly modern. Sweeping landscapes came to the fore in paintings that were provisionally religious or mythological, and his genre scenes were complex, with overtones of religious skepticism and even hints of nationalism.
Technique and material
Campin, van Eyck and van der Weyden established naturalism as the dominant style in 15th-century northern European painting. These artists sought to show the world as it actually was, and to depict people in a way that made them look more human, with a greater complexity of emotions than had been previously seen. This first generation of Early Netherlandish artists were interested in the accurate reproduction of objects (according to Panofsky they painted “gold that looked like gold”), paying close attention to natural phenomena such as light, shadow and reflection. They moved beyond the flat perspective and outlined figuration of earlier painting in favour of three-dimensional pictorial spaces. The position of viewers and how they might relate to the scene became important for the first time; in the Arnolfini Portrait, Van Eyck arranges the scene as if the viewer has just entered the room containing the two figures. Advancements in technique allowed far richer, more luminous and closely detailed representations of people, landscapes, interiors and objects.
Although, the use of oil as a binding agent can be traced to the 12th century, innovations in its handling and manipulation define the era. Egg tempera was the dominant medium until the 1430s, and while it produces both bright and light colours, it dries quickly and is a difficult medium in which to achieve naturalistic textures or deep shadows. Oil allows smooth, translucent surfaces and can be applied in a range of thicknesses, from fine lines to thick broad strokes. It dries slowly and is easily manipulated while still wet. These characteristics allowed more time to add subtle detail and enable wet-on-wet techniques. Smooth transitions of colour are possible because portions of the intermediary layers of paint can be wiped or removed as the paint dries. Oil enables differentiation among degrees of reflective light, from shadow to bright beams, and minute depictions of light effects through the use of transparent glazes. This new freedom in controlling light effects gave rise to more precise and realistic depictions of surface textures; van Eyck and van der Weyden typically show light falling on surfaces such as jewellery, wooden floors, textiles and household objects.
The paintings were most often made on wood, but sometimes on the less expensive canvas. The wood was usually oak, often imported from the Baltic region, with the preference for radially cut boards which are less likely to warp. Typically the sap was removed and the board well-seasoned before use. Wood supports allow for dendrochronological dating, and the particular use of Baltic oak gives clues as to the artist’s location. The panels generally show very high degrees of craftsmanship. Lorne Campbell notes that most are “beautifully made and finished objects. It can be extremely difficult to find the joins”. Many paintings’ frames were altered, repainted or gilded in the 18th and early 19th centuries when it was common practice to break apart hinged Netherlandish pieces so they could be sold as genre pieces. Many surviving panels are painted on both sides or with the reverse bearing family emblems, crests or ancillary outline sketches. In the case of single panels, the markings on the reverse are often wholly unrelated to the obverse and may be later additions, or as Campbell speculates, “done for the artist’s amusement”. Painting each side of a panel was practical since it prevented the wood from warping. Usually the frames of hinged works were constructed before the individual panels were worked on.
Glue binder was often used as an inexpensive alternative to oil. Many works using this medium were produced but few survive today because of the delicateness of the linen cloth and the solubility of the hide glue from which the binder was derived. Well known and relatively well preserved – though substantially damaged – examples include Matsys’ Virgin and Child with Saints Barbara and Catherine (c. 1415–25) and Bouts’ Entombment (c. 1440–55). The paint was generally applied with brushes or sometimes with thin sticks or brush handles. The artists often softened the contours of shadows with their fingers, at times to blot or reduce the glaze.
Guilds and workshops
The most usual way in the 15th century for a patron to commission a piece was to visit a master’s workshop. Only a certain number of masters could operate within any city’s bounds; they were regulated by artisan guilds to whom they had to be affiliated to be allowed to operate and receive commissions. Guilds protected and regulated painting, overseeing production, export trade and raw material supply; and they maintained discrete sets of rules for panel painters, cloth painters and book illuminators. For example, the rules set higher citizenship requirements for miniaturists and prohibited them from using oils. Overall, panel painters enjoyed the highest level of protection, with cloth painters ranking below.
Membership of a guild was highly restricted and access was difficult for newcomers. A master was expected to serve an apprenticeship in his region, and show proof of citizenship, which could be obtained through birth in the city or by purchase. Apprenticeship lasted four to five years, ending with the production of a “masterpiece” that proved his ability as a craftsman, and the payment of a substantial entrance fee. The system was protectionist at a local level through the nuances of the fee system. Although it sought to ensure a high quality of membership, it was a self-governing body that tended to favour wealthy applicants. Guild connections sometimes appear in paintings, most famously in van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, in which Christ’s body is given the t-shape of a crossbow to reflect its commission for a chapel for the Leuven guild of archers.
Workshops typically consisted of a family home for the master and lodging for apprentices. The masters usually built up inventories of pre-painted panels as well as patterns or outline designs for ready sale. With the former, the master was responsible for the overall design of the painting, and typically painted the focal portions, such as the faces, hands and the embroidered parts of the figure’s clothing. The more prosaic elements would be left to assistants; in many works it is possible to discern abrupt shifts in style, with the relatively weak Deesis passage in van Eyck’s Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych being a better-known example. Often a master’s workshop was occupied with both the reproduction of copies of proven commercially successful works, and the design of new compositions arising from commissions. In this case, the master would usually produce the underdrawing or overall composition to be painted by assistants. As a result, many surviving works that evidence first-rank compositions but uninspired execution are attributed to workshop members or followers.
By the 15th century the reach and influence of the Burgundian princes meant that the Low Countries’ merchant and banker classes were in the ascendancy. The early to mid-century saw great rises in international trade and domestic wealth, leading to an enormous increase in the demand for art. Artists from the area attracted patronage from the Baltic coast, the north German and Polish regions, the Iberian Peninsula, Italy and the powerful families of England and Scotland. At first, masters had acted as their own dealers, attending fairs where they could also buy frames, panels and pigments. The mid-century saw the development of art dealership as a profession; the activity became purely commercially driven, dominated by the mercantile class.
Smaller works were not usually produced on commission. More often the masters anticipated the formats and images that would be most sought after and their designs were then developed by workshop members. Ready made paintings were sold at regularly held fairs, or the buyers could visit workshops, which tended to be clustered in certain areas of the major cities. The masters were allowed to display in their front windows. This was the typical mode for the thousands of panels produced for the middle class – city officials, clergy, guild members, doctors and merchants.
Less expensive cloth paintings (tüchlein) were more common in middle-class households, and records show a strong interest in domestically owned religious panel paintings. Members of the merchant class typically commissioned smaller devotional panels, containing specified subject matter. Alterations varied from having individualised panels added to a prefabricated pattern, to the inclusion of a donor portrait. The addition of coats-of-arms were often the only change – an addition seen in van der Weyden’s Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, which exists in several variations.
Many of the Burgundian dukes could afford to be extravagant in their taste. Philip the Good followed the example set earlier in France by his great-uncles including John, Duke of Berry by becoming a strong patron of the arts and commissioning a large number of artworks. The Burgundian court was seen as the arbiter of taste and their appreciation in turn drove demand for highly luxurious and expensive illuminated manuscripts, gold-edged tapestries and jewel-bordered cups. Their appetite for finery trickled down through their court and nobles to the people who for the most part commissioned local artists in Bruges and Ghent in the 1440s and 1450s. While Netherlandish panel paintings did not have intrinsic value as did for example objects in precious metals, they were perceived as precious objects and in the first rank of European art. A 1425 document written by Philip the Good explains that he hired a painter for the “excellent work that he does in his craft”. Jan van Eyck painted the Annunciation while in Philip’s employ, and Rogier van der Weyden became the duke’s portrait painter in the 1440s.
Burgundian rule created a large class of courtiers and functionaries. Some gained enormous power and commissioned paintings to display their wealth and influence. Civic leaders also commissioned works from major artists, such as Bouts’ Justice for Emperor Otto III, van der Weyden’s The Justice of Trajan and Herkinbald and David’s Justice of Cambyses. Civic commissions were less common and were not as lucrative, but they brought notice to and increased a painter’s reputation, as with Memling, whose St John Altarpiece for Bruges’ Sint-Janshospitaal brought him additional civic commissions.
Wealthy foreign patronage and the development of international trade afforded the established masters the chance to build up workshops with assistants. Although first-rank painters such as Petrus Christus and Hans Memling found patrons among the local nobility, they catered specifically to the large foreign population in Bruges. Painters not only exported goods but also themselves; foreign princes and nobility, striving to emulate the opulence of the Burgundian court, hired painters away from Bruges.
The paintings of the first generation of Netherlandish artists are often characterised by the use of symbolism and biblical references. Van Eyck pioneered, and his innovations were taken up and developed by van der Weyden, Memling and Christus. Each employed rich and complex iconographical elements to create a heightened sense of contemporary beliefs and spiritual ideals. Morally the works express a fearful outlook, combined with a respect for restraint and stoicism. The paintings above all emphasise the spiritual over the earthly. Because the cult of Mary was at an apex at the time, iconographic elements related to the Life of Mary vastly predominate.
Craig Harbison describes the blending of realism and symbolism as perhaps “the most important aspect of early Flemish art”. The first generation of Netherlandish painters were preoccupied with making religious symbols more realistic. Van Eyck incorporated a wide variety of iconographic elements, often conveying what he saw as a co-existence of the spiritual and material worlds. The iconography was embedded in the work unobtrusively; typically the references comprised small but key background details. The embedded symbols were meant to meld into the scenes and “was a deliberate strategy to create an experience of spiritual revelation”. Van Eyck’s religious paintings in particular “always present the spectator with a transfigured view of visible reality”. To him the day-to-day is harmoniously steeped in symbolism, such that, according to Harbison, “descriptive data were rearranged … so that they illustrated not earthly existence but what he considered supernatural truth.” This blend of the earthly and heavenly evidences van Eyck’s belief that the “essential truth of Christian doctrine” can be found in “the marriage of secular and sacred worlds, of reality and symbol”. He depicts overly large Madonnas, whose unrealistic size shows the separation between the heavenly from earthly, but placed them in everyday settings such as churches, domestic chambers or seated with court officials.
Yet the earthly churches are heavily decorated with heavenly symbols. A heavenly throne is clearly represented in some domestic chambers (for example in the Lucca Madonna). More difficult to discern are the settings for paintings such as Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, where the location is a fusion of the earthly and celestial. Van Eyck’s iconography is often so densely and intricately layered that a work has to be viewed multiple times before even the most obvious meaning of an element is apparent. The symbols were often subtly woven into the paintings so that they only became apparent after close and repeated viewing, while much of the iconography reflects the idea that, according to John Ward, there is a “promised passage from sin and death to salvation and rebirth”.
Other artists employed symbolism in a more prosaic manner, despite van Eyck’s great influence on both his contemporaries and later artists. Campin showed a clear separation between spiritual and earthly realms; unlike van Eyck, he did not employ a programme of concealed symbolism. Campin’s symbols do not alter the sense of the real; in his paintings a domestic scene is no more complicated than a one showing religious iconography, but one the viewer would recognise and understand. Van der Weyden’s symbolism was far more nuanced than Campin’s but not as dense as van Eyck’s. According to Harbison, van der Weyden incorporated his symbols so carefully, and in such an exquisite manner, that “Neither the mystical union that results in his work, nor his reality itself for that matter, seems capable of being rationally analyzed, explained or reconstructed.” His treatment of architectural details, niches, colour and space is presented in such an inexplicable manner that “the particular objects or people we see before us have suddenly, jarringly, become symbols with religious truth”.
Paintings and other precious objects served an important aid in the religious life of those who could afford them. Prayer and meditative contemplation were means to attain salvation, while the very wealthy could also build churches (or extend existing ones), or commission artworks or other devotional pieces as a means to guarantee salvation in the afterlife. Vast numbers of Virgin and Child paintings were produced, and original designs were widely copied and exported. Many of the paintings were based on Byzantine prototypes of the 12th and 13th century, of which the Cambrai Madonna is probably the best known. In this way the traditions of the earlier centuries were absorbed and re-developed as a distinctly rich and complex iconographical tradition.
Marian devotion grew from the 13th century, mostly forming around the concepts of the Immaculate Conception and her Assumption into heaven. In a culture that venerated the possession of relics as a means to bring the earthly closer to the divine, Mary left no bodily relics, thus assuming a special position between heaven and humanity. By the early 15th century, Mary had grown in importance within the Christian doctrine to the extent that she was commonly seen as the most accessible intercessor with God. It was thought that the length each person would need to suffer in limbo was proportional to their display of devotion while on earth. The veneration of Mary reached a peak in the early 15th century, an era that saw an unending demand for works depicting her likeness. From the mid-15th century, Netherlandish portrayals of the life of Christ tended to be centred on the iconography of the Man of Sorrows.
Those who could afford to commissioned donor portraits. Such a commission was usually executed as part of a triptych, or later as a more affordable diptych. Van der Weyden popularised the existing northern tradition of half-length Marian portraits. These echoed the “miracle-working” Byzantine icons then popular in Italy. The format became extremely popular across the north, and his innovations are an important contributing factor to the emergence of the Marian diptych.
Source from Wikipedia