Early Netherlandish painting is 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, Mechelen, Louvain, Tournai and Brussels, all in contemporary Belgium. 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.
Scholarship of Early Netherlandish painting was one of the main activities of 19th- and 20th-century art history, and a major focus of two of the most important art historians of the 20th century: Max J. Friedländer (From Van Eyck to Breugel and Early Netherlandish Painting) and Erwin Panofsky (Early Netherlandish Painting).
Although the Netherlandish artists are primarily known for their panel paintings, their output includes a variety of formats, including illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, tapestries, carved retables, stained glass, brass objects and carved tombs. According to art historian Susie Nash, by the early 16th century, the region led the field in almost every aspect of portable visual culture, “with specialist expertise and techniques of production at such a high level that no one else could compete with them”. The Burgundian court favoured tapestry and metalwork, which are well recorded in surviving documentation, while demand for panel paintings is less evident – they may have been less suited to itinerant courts. Wall hangings and books functioned as political propaganda and as a means to showcase wealth and power, whereas portraits were less favoured. According to Maryan Ainsworth, those that were commissioned functioned to highlight lines of succession, such as van der Weyden’s portrait of Charles the Bold; or for betrothals as in the case of van Eyck’s lost Portrait of Isabella of Portugal.
Religious paintings were commissioned for royal and ducal palaces, for churches, hospitals, and convents, and for wealthy clerics and private donors. The richer cities and towns commissioned works for their civic buildings. Artists often worked in more than one medium; van Eyck and Petrus Christus are both thought to have contributed to manuscripts. Van der Weyden designed tapestries, though few survive. The Netherlandish painters were responsible for many innovations, including the advancement of the diptych format, the conventions of donor portraits, new conventions for Marian portraits, and, through works such as van Eyck’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin and van der Weyden’s Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin in the 1430s, laying the foundation for the development of landscape painting as a separate genre.
Before the mid-15th century, illuminated books were considered a higher form of art than panel painting, and their ornate and luxurious qualities better reflected the wealth, status and taste of their owners. Manuscripts were ideally suited as diplomatic gifts or offerings to commemorate dynastic marriages or other major courtly occasions. From the 12th century, specialist monastery-based workshops (in French libraires) produced books of hours (collections of prayers to be said at canonical hours), psalters, prayer books and histories, as well as romance and poetry books. At the start of the 15th century, Gothic manuscripts from Paris dominated the northern European market. Their popularity was in part due to the production of more affordable, single leaf miniatures which could be inserted into unillustrated books of hours. These were at times offered in a serial manner designed to encourage patrons to “include as many pictures as they could afford”, which clearly presented them as an item of fashion but also as form of indulgence. The single leaves had other uses rather than inserts; they could be attached to walls as aids to private meditation and prayer, as seen in Christus’ 1450–60 panel Portrait of a Young Man, now in the National Gallery, which shows a small leaf with text to the Vera icon illustrated with the head of Christ. The French artists were overtaken in importance from the mid-15th century by masters in Ghent, Bruges and Utrecht. English production, once of the highest quality, had greatly declined and relatively few Italian manuscripts went north of the Alps. The French masters did not give up their position easily however, and even in 1463 were urging their guilds to impose sanctions on the Netherlandish artists.
The Limbourg brothers’s ornate Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry perhaps marks both the beginning and a highpoint of Netherlandish illumination. Later the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy explored the same mix of illusionism and realism. The Limbourgs’ career ended just as van Eyck’s began – by 1416 all the brothers (none of whom had reached 30) and their patron Jean, Duke of Berry were dead, most likely from plague. Van Eyck is thought to have contributed several of the more acclaimed miniatures of the Turin-Milan Hours as the anonymous artist known as Hand G. A number of illustrations from the period show a strong stylistic resemblance to Gerard David, though it is unclear whether they are from his hands or those of followers.
A number of factors led to the popularity of Netherlandish illuminators. Primary was the tradition and expertise that developed in the region in the centuries following the monastic reform of the 14th century, building on the growth in number and prominence of monasteries, abbeys and churches from the 12th century that had already produced significant numbers of liturgical texts. There was a strong political aspect; the form had many influential patrons such as Jean, Duke of Berry and Philip the Good, the latter of whom collected more than a thousand illuminated books before his death. According to Thomas Kren, Philip’s “library was an expression of the man as a Christian prince, and an embodiment of the state – his politics and authority, his learning and piety”. Because of his patronage the manuscript industry in the Lowlands grew so that it dominated Europe for several generations. The Burgundian book-collecting tradition passed to Philip’s son and his wife, Charles the Bold and Margaret of York; his granddaughter Mary of Burgundy and her husband Maximilian I; and to his son-in-law, Edward IV, who was an avid collector of Flemish manuscripts. The libraries left by Philip and Edward IV formed the nucleus from which sprang the Royal Library of Belgium and the English Royal Library.
Netherlandish illuminators had an important export market, designing many works specifically for the English market. Following a decline in domestic patronage after Charles the Bold died in 1477, the export market became more important. Illuminators responded to differences in taste by producing more lavish and extravagantly decorated works tailored for foreign elites, including Edward IV of England, James IV of Scotland and Eleanor of Viseu.
There was considerable overlap between panel painting and illumination; van Eyck, van der Weyden, Christus and other painters designed manuscript miniatures. In addition, miniaturists would borrow motifs and ideas from panel paintings; Campin’s work was often used as a source in this way, for example in the “Hours of Raoul d’Ailly”. Commissions were often shared between several masters, with junior painters or specialists assisting, especially with details such as the border decorations, these last often done by women. The masters rarely signed their work, making attribution difficult; the identities of some of the more significant illuminators are lost.
Netherlandish artists found increasingly inventive ways to highlight and differentiate their work from manuscripts from surrounding countries; such techniques included designing elaborate page borders and devising ways to relate scale and space. They explored the interplay between the three essential components of a manuscript: border, miniature and text. An example is the Nassau book of hours (c. 1467–80) by the Vienna Master of Mary of Burgundy, in which the borders are decorated with large illusionistic flowers and insects. These elements achieved their effect by being broadly painted, as if scattered across the gilded surface of the miniatures. This technique was continued by, among others, the Flemish Master of James IV of Scotland (possibly Gerard Horenbout), known for his innovative page layout. Using various illusionistic elements, he often blurred the line between the miniature and its border, frequently using both in his efforts to advance the narrative of his scenes.
During the early 19th century, the collection of 15th- and 16th-century Netherlandish cut-out, as miniatures or parts for albums, became fashionable amongst connoisseurs such as William Young Ottley, leading to the destruction of many manuscripts. Originals were highly sought after, a revival that helped the rediscovery of Netherlandish art in the later part of the century.
During the mid-15th century, tapestry was one of the most expensive and prized artistic products in Europe. Commercial production proliferated across the Netherlands and northern France from the early 15th century, especially in the cities of Arras, Bruges and Tournai. The perceived technical ability of these artisans was such that, in 1517, Pope Julius II sent Raphael’s cartoons to Brussels to be woven into hangings. Such woven wall hangings played a central political role as diplomatic gifts, especially in their larger format; Philip the Good gifted several to participants at the Congress of Arras in 1435, where the halls were draped from top to bottom and all around (tout autour) with tapestries showing scenes of the “Battle and Overthrow of People of Liege”. At Charles the Bold and Margaret of York’s wedding the room “was hung above with draperies of wool, blue and white, and on the sides was tapestried with a rich tapestry woven with the history of Jason and the Golden Fleece”. Rooms typically were hung from ceiling to floor with tapestries and some rooms named for a set of tapestries, such as a chamber Philip the Bold named for a set of white tapestries with scenes from The Romance of the Rose. For about two centuries during the Burgundian period, master weavers produced “innumerable series of hangings heavy with gold and silver thread, the like of which the world had never seen”.
The practical use of textiles results from their portability; tapestries provided easily assembled interior decorations suited to religious or civic ceremonies. Their value is reflected in their positioning in contemporary inventories, in which they are typically found at the top of the record, then ranked in accordance with their material or colouring. White and gold were considered of the highest quality. Charles V of France had 57 tapestries, of which 16 were white. Jean de Berry owned 19, while Mary of Burgundy, Isabella of Valois, Isabeau of Bavaria and Philip the Good all held substantial collections.
Tapestry production began with design. The designs, or cartoons were typically executed on paper or parchment, put together by qualified painters, then sent to weavers, often across a great distance. Because cartoons could be re-used, craftsmen often worked on source material that was decades old. As both paper and parchment are highly perishable, few of the original cartoons survive. Once a design was agreed upon its production might be farmed out among many weavers. Looms were active in all the major Flemish cities, in most of the towns and in many of the villages.
Looms were not controlled by the guilds. Dependent on a migrant workforce, their commercial activity was driven by entrepreneurs, who were usually painters. The entrepreneur would locate and commission patrons, hold a stock of cartoons and provide raw materials such as wool, silk, and sometimes gold and silver – which often had to be imported. The entrepreneur was in direct contact with the patron, and they would often go through the nuances of the design at both the cartoon and final stages. This examination was often a difficult business and necessitated delicate management; in 1400 Isabeau of Bavaria rejected a completed set by Colart de Laon having earlier approved the designs, to de Laon’s – and presumably his commissioner’s – considerable embarrassment.
Because tapestries were designed largely by painters, their formal conventions are closely aligned with the conventions of panel painting. This is especially true with the later generations of 16th-century painters who produced panoramas of heaven and hell. Harbison describes how the intricate, dense and overlaid detail of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights resembles, “in its precise symbolism … a medieval tapestry”.
Triptychs and altarpieces
Northern triptychs and polyptychs were popular across Europe from the late 14th century, with the peak of demand lasting until the early 16th century. During the 15th century, they were the most widely produced format of northern panel painting. Preoccupied with religious subject matter, they come in two broad types: smaller, portable private devotional works, or larger altarpieces for liturgical settings. The earliest northern examples are compound works incorporating engraving and painting, usually with two painted wings that could be folded over a carved central corpus.
Polyptychs were produced by the more accomplished masters. They provide greater scope for variation, and a greater number of possible combinations of interior and exterior panels that could be viewed at one time. That hinged works could be opened and closed served a practical purpose; on religious holidays the more prosaic and everyday outer panels were replaced by the lush interior panels. The Ghent Altarpiece, completed in 1432, had different configurations for weekdays, Sundays and church holidays.
The first generation of Netherlandish masters borrowed many customs from 13th- and 14th-century Italian altarpieces. The conventions for Italian triptychs before 1400 were quite rigid. In central panels the mid-ground was populated by members of the Holy Family; early works, especially from the Sienese or Florentine traditions, were overwhelmingly characterised by images of the enthroned Virgin set against a gilded background. The wings usually contain a variety of angels, donors and saints, but there is never direct eye contact, and only rarely a narrative connection, with the central panel’s figures. Netherlandish painters adapted many of these conventions, but subverted them almost from the start. Van der Weyden was especially innovative, as apparent in his 1442–45 Miraflores Altarpiece and c. 1452 Braque Triptych. In these paintings members of the Holy Family appear on the wings instead of just the central panels, while the latter is notable for the continuous landscape connecting the three inner panels. From the 1490s Hieronymus Bosch painted at least 16 triptychs, the best of which subverted existing conventions. Bosch’s work continued the move towards secularism and emphasised landscape. Bosch also unified the scenes of the inner panels.
Triptychs were commissioned by German patrons from the 1380s, with large-scale export beginning around 1400. Few of these very early examples survive, but the demand for Netherlandish altarpieces throughout Europe is evident from the many surviving examples still extant in churches across the continent. Till-Holger Borchert describes how they bestowed a “prestige which, in the first half of the 15th century, only the workshops of the Burgundian Netherlands were capable of achieving”. By the 1390s, Netherlandish altarpieces were produced mostly in Brussels and Bruges. The popularity of Brussels’ altarpieces lasted until about 1530, when the output of the Antwerp workshops grew in favour. This was in part because they produced at a lower cost by allocating different portions of the panels among specialised workshop members, a practice Borchert describes as an early form of division of labour.
Multi-panel Netherlandish paintings fell out of favour and were considered old-fashioned as Antwerp Mannerism came to the fore in the mid-16th century. Later the iconoclasm of the Reformation deemed them offensive, and many works in the Low Countries were destroyed. Extant examples are found mostly in German churches and monasteries. As secular works grew in demand, triptychs were often broken up and sold as individual works, especially if a panel or section contained an image that could pass as a secular portrait. A panel would sometimes be cut down to only the figure, with the background over-painted so that “it looked sufficiently like a genre piece to hang in a well-known collection of Dutch 17th-century paintings”.
Diptychs were widely popular in northern Europe from the mid-15th to the early 16th century. They consisted of two equally sized panels joined by hinges (or, less often, a fixed frame); the panels were usually linked thematically. Hinged panels could be opened and closed like a book, allowing both an interior and exterior view, while the ability to close the wings allowed protection of the inner images. Originating from conventions in Books of Hours, diptychs typically functioned as less expensive and more portable altarpieces. Diptychs are distinct from pendants in that they are physically connected wings and not merely two paintings hung side by side. They were usually near-miniature in scale, and some emulated medieval “treasury art” -small pieces made of gold or ivory. The tracery seen in works such as van der Weyden’s Virgin and Child reflects ivory carving of the period. The format was adapted by van Eyck and van der Weyden on commission from members of the House of Valois-Burgundy, and refined by Hugo van der Goes, Hans Memling and later Jan van Scorel.
Netherlandish diptychs tend to illustrate only a small range of religious scenes. There are numerous depictions of the Virgin and Child, reflecting the Virgin’s contemporary popularity as a subject of devotion. The inner panels consisted mainly of donor portraits – often of husbands and their wives – alongside saints or the Virgin and Child. The donor was nearly always shown kneeling in full or half length, with hands clasped in prayer. The Virgin and Child are always positioned on the right, reflecting the Christian reverence for the right hand side as the “place of honour” alongside the divine.
Their development and commercial worth has been linked to a change in religious attitude during the 14th century, when a more meditative and solitary devotion – exemplified by the Devotio Moderna movement – grew in popularity. Private reflection and prayer was encouraged and the small-scale diptych fitted this purpose. It became popular among the newly emerging middle class and the more affluent monasteries across the Low Countries and northern Germany. Ainsworth says that regardless of size, whether a large altarpiece or a small diptych, Netherlandish painting is a “matter of small scale and meticulous detail”. The small size was meant to entice the viewer into a meditative state for personal devotion and perhaps the “experience of miraculous visions”.
Late 20th-century technical examination has shown significant differences in technique and style between the panels of individual diptychs. The technical inconsistencies may be the result of the workshop system, in which the more prosaic passages were often completed by assistants. A change in style between panels can be seen, according to historian John Hand, because the divine panel was usually based on general designs sold on the open market, with the donor panel added after a patron was found.
Few intact diptychs survive. As with altarpieces, the majority were later separated and sold as single “genre” pictures. In the workshop system some were interchangeable, and the religious works may have been paired with newly commissioned donor panels. Later many diptychs were broken apart, thus creating two saleable works from one. During the Reformation, religious scenes were often removed.
Secular portraiture was a rarity in European art before 1430. The format did not exist as a separate genre and was only found infrequently at the highest end of the market in betrothal portraits or royal family commissions. While such undertakings may have been profitable, they were considered a lower art form and the majority of surviving pre-16th-century examples are unattributed. Large numbers of single devotional panels showing saints and biblical figures were being produced, but depictions of historical, known individuals did not begin until the early 1430s. Van Eyck was the pioneer; his seminal 1432 Léal Souvenir is one of the earliest surviving examples, emblematic of the new style in its realism and acute observation of the small details of the sitter’s appearance. His Arnolfini Portrait is filled with symbolism, as is the Madonna of Chancelor Rolin, commissioned as testament to Rolin’s power, influence, and piety.
Van der Weyden developed the conventions of northern portraiture and was hugely influential on the following generations of painters. Rather than merely follow van Eyck’s meticulous attention to detail, van der Weyden created more abstract and sensual representations. He was highly sought after as a portraitist, yet there are noticeable similarities in his portraits, likely because he used and reused the same underdrawings, which met common ideals of rank and piety. These were then adapted to show the facial characteristics and expressions of the particular sitter.
Petrus Christus placed his sitter in a naturalistic setting rather than a flat and featureless background. This approach was in part a reaction against van der Weyden, who, in his emphasis on sculptural figures, utilised very shallow pictorial spaces. In his 1462 Portrait of a Man, Dieric Bouts went further by situating the man in a room complete with a window that looks out at a landscape, while in the 16th century, the full-length portrait became popular in the north. The latter format was practically unseen in earlier northern art, although it had a tradition in Italy going back centuries, most usually in fresco and illuminated manuscripts. Full-length portraits were reserved for depictions of the highest echelon of society, and were associated with princely displays of power. Of the second generation of northern painters, Hans Memling became the leading portraitist, taking commissions from as far as Italy. He was highly influential on later painters and is credited with inspiring Leonardo’s positioning of the Mona Lisa in front of a landscape view. Van Eyck and van der Weyden similarly influenced the French artist Jean Fouquet and the Germans Hans Pleydenwurff and Martin Schongauer among others.
The Netherlandish artists moved away from the profile view – popularised during the Italian Quattrocento – towards the less formal but more engaging three-quarter view. At this angle, more than one side of the face is visible as the sitter’s body is rotated towards the viewer. This pose gives a better view of the shape and features of the head and allows the sitter to look out towards the viewer. The gaze of the sitter rarely engages the viewer. Van Eyck’s 1433 Portrait of a Man is an early example, which shows the artist himself looking at the viewer. Although there is often direct eye contact between subject and viewer, the look is normally detached, aloof and uncommunicative, perhaps to reflect the subject’s high social position. There are exceptions, typically in bridal portraits or in the case of potential betrothals, when the object of the work is to make the sitter as attractive as possible. In these cases the sitter was often shown smiling, with an engaging and radiant expression designed to appeal to her intended.
Around 1508, Albrecht Dürer described the function of portraiture as “preserving a person’s appearance after his death”. Portraits were objects of status, and served to ensure that the individual’s personal success was recorded and would endure beyond his lifetime. Most portraits tended to show royalty, the upper nobility or princes of the church. The new affluence in the Burgundian Netherlands brought a wider variety of clientele, as members of the upper middle class could now afford to commission a portrait. As a result, more is known about the appearance and dress of the region’s people than at any time since the late Roman period. Portraits did not generally require lengthy sittings; typically a series of preparatory drawings were used to flesh out the final panel. Very few of these drawings survive, a notable exception being van Eyck’s study for his Portrait of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati.
Landscape was a secondary concern to Netherlandish painters before the mid 1460s. Geographical settings were rare and when they did appear usually consisted of glimpses through open windows or arcades. They were rarely based on actual locations; the settings tended to be largely imagined, designed to suit the thematic thrust of the panel. Because most of the works were donor portraits, very often the landscapes were tame, controlled and served merely to provide a harmonious setting for the idealised interior space. In this, the northern artists lagged behind their Italian counterparts who were already placing their sitters within geographically identifiable and closely described landscapes. Some of the northern landscapes are highly detailed and notable in their own right, including van Eyck’s unsentimental c. 1430 Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych and van der Weyden’s widely copied 1435–40 Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin.
Van Eyck was almost certainly influenced by the Labours of the Months landscapes the Limbourg brothers painted for the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. The influence can be seen in the illuminations painted in the Turin-Milan Hours, which show rich landscapes in the tiny bas de page scenes. These, according to Pächt, should be defined as early examples of Netherlandish landscape painting. The landscape tradition in illuminated manuscripts would continue for at least the next century. Simon Bening “explored new territory in the genre of landscape”, seen in several of the leaves he painted for the c. 1520 Grimani Breviary.
From the late 15th century, a number of painters emphasised landscape in their works, a development led in part by the shift in preference from religious iconography to secular subjects. Second-generation Netherlandish painters applied the mid-14th-century dictum of natural representation. This was born of the rising affluence of the region’s middle class, many of whom had now travelled south and seen countryside noticeably different from their flat homeland. At the same time, the later part of the century saw the emergence of specialisation and a number of masters focused on detailing landscape, most notably Konrad Witz in the mid-15th century, and later Joachim Patinir. Most innovations in this format came from artists living in the Dutch regions of the Burgundian lands, most notably from Haarlem, Leiden and ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The significant artists from these areas did not slavishly reproduce the scenery before them, but in subtle ways adapted and modified their landscapes to reinforce the emphasis and meaning of the panel they were working on.
Patinir developed what is now called the world landscape genre, which is typified by biblical or historical figures within an imagined panoramic landscape, usually mountains and lowlands, water and buildings. Paintings of this type are characterised by an elevated viewpoint, with the figures dwarfed by their surroundings. The format was taken up by, among others, Gerard David and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and became popular in Germany, especially with painters from the Danube school. Patinir’s works are relatively small and use a horizontal format; this was to become so standard for landscapes in art that it is now called “landscape” format in ordinary contexts, but at the time it was a considerable novelty, as the vast majority of panel paintings before 1520 were vertical in format. World landscape paintings retain many of the elements developed from the mid-15th century, but are composed, in modern cinematic terms, as a long rather than a medium shot. The human presence remained central rather than serving as mere staffage. Hieronymus Bosch adapted elements of the world landscape style, with the influence especially notable in his single-panel paintings.
The most popular subjects of this type include the Flight into Egypt and the plight of hermits such as Saints Jerome and Anthony. As well as connecting the style to the later Age of Discovery, the role of Antwerp as a booming centre both of world trade and cartography, and the wealthy town-dweller’s view of the countryside, art historians have explored the paintings as religious metaphors for the pilgrimage of life.
Religious images came under close scrutiny as actually or potentially idolatrous from the start of the Protestant Reformation in the 1520s. Martin Luther accepted some imagery, but few Early Netherlandish paintings met his criteria. Andreas Karlstadt, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin were wholly opposed to public religious images, above all in churches, and Calvinism soon became the dominant force in Netherlandish Protestantism. From 1520, outbursts of reformist iconoclasm broke out across much of Northern Europe. These might be official and peaceable, as in England under the Tudors and the English Commonwealth, or unofficial and often violent, as in the Beeldenstorm or “Iconoclastic Fury” in 1566 in the Netherlands. On 19 August 1566, this wave of mob destruction reached Ghent, where Marcus van Vaernewijck chronicled the events. He wrote of the Ghent Altarpiece being “taken to pieces and lifted, panel by panel, into the tower to preserve it from the rioters”. Antwerp saw very thorough destruction in its churches in 1566, followed by more losses in the Spanish Sack of Antwerp in 1576, and a further period of official iconoclasm in 1581, which now included city and guild buildings, when Calvinists controlled the city council.
Many thousands of religious objects and artefacts were destroyed, including paintings, sculptures, altarpieces, stained glass, and crucifixes, and the survival rate of works by the major artists is low – even Jan van Eyck has only some 24 extant works confidently attributed to him. The number grows with later artists, but there are still anomalies; Petrus Christus is considered a major artist, but is given a smaller number of works than van Eyck. In general the later 15th-century works exported to southern Europe have a much higher survival rate.
Many of the period’s artworks were commissioned by clergy for their churches, with specifications for a physical format and pictorial content that would complement existing architectural and design schemes. An idea of how such church interiors might have looked can be seen from both van Eyck’s Madonna in the Church and van der Weyden’s Exhumation of St Hubert. According to Nash, van der Weyden’s panel is an insightful look at the appearance of pre-Reformation churches, and the manner in which images were placed so that they resonated with other paintings or objects. Nash goes on to say that, “any one would necessarily be seen in relation to other images, repeating, enlarging, or diversifying the chosen themes”. Because iconoclasts targeted churches and cathedrals, important information about the display of individual works has been lost, and with it, insights about the meaning of these artworks in their own time. Many other works were lost to fires or in wars; the break-up of the Valois Burgundian state made the Low Countries the cockpit of European conflict until 1945. Van der Weyden’s The Justice of Trajan and Herkinbald polyptych is perhaps the most significant loss; from records it appears to have been comparable in scale and ambition to the Ghent Altarpiece. It was destroyed by French artillery during the bombardment of Brussels in 1695, and is today known only from a tapestry copy.
Source from Wikipedia