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November 02, 2015
Moments in Art
Joyous Celebrations (Rubens 3)
by Lawrence Jeppson

During the first centuries of its commercial ascendency, recounted in last week’s “Moments in Art,” Antwerp was not yet a garden flowering with art.

If there was any significant art, other than sculpture and manuscripts, it probably arrived by ship or wagon from Italy; but as soon as the great Antwerp cathedral of Notre Dame was started, in the 14th century, this deficiency slowly changed.

Intellectual life in the city began not in painting but in literature and drama. The first dramatic lodge, Les Violiers (Violets?) was one of several groups known as the Chamber of Rhetoric. Members had to be Catholics and they could not sing or play anything which was not. A member paid 18 florins to join (plus another for the commissioner), 12 if he wanted to quit, 6 for annual dues, and 15 if he wanted the entire chamber to accompany his eventual funeral. The Violiers met every Sunday afternoon at 3:00, and fines were levied for non-attendance. (Can you see a Mormon bishop fining a choir member for missing a rehearsal?)

In 1480 the Violiers--and eventually other parts of the Chamber of Rhetoric--merged with the Guild of St. Luke, which was the association of the plastic arts. The Guild of St. Luke was conceived under impulsion to give not merely the plastic arts but all crafts which touch art at some point, the edification of the vast Cathedral of Notre Dame, a gigantic jewel box destined to enclose innumerable artistic riches of every nature.

Collaboration on a common project for a common faith would provide a bond of solidarity. Centuries later the Guild became Antwerp's intellectual Academy.

From the start the Guild of St. Luke was interested in qua1ity, though it recognized that quality in art was a matter of judgment. But misrepresentation would be outlawed.

The Guild of St. Luke was certified on July 22, 1442, when Jan Van Bruggen and another burgomaster declared, "We announce that the good people and society of painters, sculptors in wood, sculptors in stone, glaziers, illuminators, printers, and all who belong to the Guild of St. Luke have brought to our attention that the churchwardens of Notre Dame have conceded them the use of a chapel in this church, that the said people of the Guild have decorated this chapel at great expense in the honor of God and St. Luke . . . . and wish to do even more, but this will be difficult for them if they are not accorded certain statutes and franchises which will serve to regulate the corporation and to keep it in good state.”

The declaration prescribed initiation fees--paid to the church, the guild, and the guild's rectors--and annual dues.

Four years of apprenticeship were required of new Guild members, but in the case of unusual talent this could be waived by membership vote. Leaders were elected for one-year terms. Legitimate sons of a free-master could become apprentices with a payment of two escaliers; bastard sons had to pay three.

More important to our subject, the charter set down rules to prevent frauds, non-execution of work, and other acts which might compromise the profession. Amendments of 1470 obliged the artist first to verify the quality of wood on which he would paint the image: this would be certified by stamping the back with a print of the hand from the city’s heraldry. Then the artist had to certify that he had exercised "conscientious execution" in actual painting, and this was attested to by stamping the back with the entire coat of arms of the city of Antwerp.

Regulations were further strengthened by the code of Dec. 28, 1480, which added new guarantees, imposed new obligations on the artists, and prescribed new measures against fraud. "Precautions of this manner gave the stranger a high esteem for the works of art produced by Antwerp artists."

The earliest extant register shows only 35 members of the Guild of St. Luke, just 15 of them painters. Included were gold and silversmiths, glassmakers, embroiderers, enamelers. A huge financial advantage, the artists were given a stall in the churchyard of Notre Dame and a monopoly to sell religious works.

The churchyard could be a cold, wet spot. Later the artists moved to shops over the new Bourse (stock exchange). There were not enough artists in Antwerp to meet the demand for pictures, wooden altar pieces, images, and tabernacles, especially at fair time, and so the monopoly finally had to be shared with Bruxelles. It is likely that the export market came to create a bigger drain than the fair: in time large quantities of art from the city went as far as Mexico and Peru. These included replicas and forgeries.

Towards the cathedral itself the guild lived up to its promises. It became the most completely adorned church north of the Alps.

The Guild had its own annual party, and as the years went on the Guild began to deteriorate from its high purposes. It policed itself poorly. Instead of working to improve the arts, it ate up its own revenues. Members complained to the governors that of an annual income of 1800 or so florins, merely the banquet to honor the chief had cost 1300. Looking back on more than 400 years of Guild existence, Eugene Gens sadly noted that, "The Guild of St. Luke failed to stimulate even a single man whose work could be cited in 1861."

With the decay of the Guild and the luster imparted to Flemish art by Rubens, it is no wonder that Antwerp's famous Friday Market became a trading ground for thousands and thousands of fake pictures, which entered the circulating blood of commerce to be oxidized out and deposited in all extremities of the earth's body.

The Friday Market was the brainchild of one of the most remarkable men in Flemish civil history, Gilbert Van Schoonbeke, whose career should be both lesson and warning to urban planners everywhere. In the 19th century Baron Haussmann proved his genius by destroying vast areas of Paris and building the wide boulevards, but as a reshaper of cities he was more than three centuries behind Van Schoonbeke.

Van Schoonbake started as a young prototype for America’s 20th century Zeckendorf, buying and selling land, houses, leases, coins, and rights to excise taxes and customs duties. He bought out, cleared, and rebuilt urban areas and expanded into vacant suburban fields, which he subdivided, often to the benefit of the communal treasury rather than himself. He constructed docks, locks, canals, bridges, wide streets, shops, and public edifices. He built a new grain market and a gallery of tapestry shops.

Since the prosperity of the city--and his enterprises--would be stimulated by a high level of real construction, he did everything possible to make building materials available to the populace at lowest practical cost. From the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V he obtained limestone quarries near Namur and permission to cut oak in the royal forests of Buggenhout. He built brick factories at Callabeke on the Scheldt--along with 60 houses for workers--and hauled in copious quantities of peat from properties he owned in Sevenbergen to burn in the kilns. Each year 700 to 800 shiploads of brick were deposited on his Antwerp docks at prices which speculators were not permitted to augment.

When Van Schoonbeke ran into a slow market in selling his Nouvelle Ville subdivision, he decided to dot the plots with 24 breweries. To have fresh water he built a subterranean conduit to bring it from Herenthals canal to a vast basin. Then, by a series of flumes and buckets, the water was lifted 66 feet to a cistern on the top of a building– the famous Water House--from where it flowed under pressure through a system of tubes to the breweries.

Van Schoonbake did not own the breweries but took two sous payment for every cask of beer. Unfortunately ten of the breweries began operation before the water system was completed and used water from polluted sources. The old-time brewers in the heart of the city gracelessly charged that the beer coming from Nouvelle Ville was alive with infinitesimal worms!

Van Schoonbeke had built 3000 new homes, created new neighborhoods, and reconstructed the city fortifications. His many public works necessitated new taxes and an ever-increasing bonded indebtedness, all of which the people found intolerable. Fomented by lingering memories of the brewery stories, the populace rose up. In the ensuing strife outside militia was called in, four citizens were beheaded in the marketplace, three others were beaten and had their tongues pierced by red hot irons, and Van Schoonbeke was forced into permanent exile.

Among all his public works, Van Schoonbeke created the Friday Market, which he built in 1547 on land formerly occupied by the Van Spangen house. To insure its commercial success, he built new streets leading to the edifice, and the Friday Market took its place as the city’s trading center for objects, where vendors and buyers came to haggle over paintings, statues, relics, and adornments of varying beauty, value, and authenticity, and where, as we shall see, Gresham’s Law (bad money drives good money out of circulation) applied to the art market saw full vindication.

Since reigning monarchs did not come visiting Antwerp all that often, great annual Landjuweelen fętes were instituted which convoked the Chambers of Rhetoric from the 17 provinces and crammed audiences of 20,000 within Antwerp’s spectacle walls.

As the Guild of St. Luke took on the performing arts it became responsible for providing the lively festivals, parades, exhibitions, street decorations, and feasts for visiting dignitaries. The Emperor Maximillian brought his new Italian wife Bianca--with an entourage of Italian ladies in waiting--to Antwerp in order to name his son Philip the Fair the governor of his Burgundian provinces. Antwerp declared Oct. 5, 1494 a Day of Joyous Entry.

The Royal party was greeted by a parade castle six feet high which was suspended in the air--a real float--and gave terrifying noises at the archduke's approach.

It was an astonishing manifestation. The sight which was the most enthusiastically recalled for years afterward whenever any of entourage met together for a tankard of beer was the history of three goddesses, Venus, Juno, and Pallas Athena, enacted in the marketplace by three beautiful nude young women.

In the history of the creation and management of these extravaganzas, no one did better than Peter Paul Rubens, though the three goddesses act he never could top--for they were truly topless.


Copyright © 2020 by Lawrence Jeppson Printed from NauvooTimes.com