A major exhibition in Leuven on Dieric Bouts, master of the Flemish Renaissance

From October 20, 2023 to January 14, 2024, the M Leuven Museum in Leuven, Belgium, is hosting a major exhibition dedicated to one of the greatest Flemish Renaissance artists, Dieric Bouts. Gathered together are about thirty works by the great artist.

From October 20, 2023 to January 14, 2024, the M Leuven Museum in Leuven, Belgium, is hosting a major exhibition dedicated to one of the greatest Flemish Renaissance artists, Dieric Bouts (Haarlem, c. 1410 - Leuven, 1475). The exhibition, entitled Dieric Bouts. Creator of images, brings together in the city where the artist spent almost his entire life a large number of works, also placed in comparison with today’s visual culture, to open a new perspective on work that is more than five centuries old.

Until today, Dieric Bouts has mainly been known as a “Flemish primitive of the second generation” or the “painter of silence.” His work is less well known than that of the pioneering Van Eyck or Bosch’s apocalyptic scenes. The exhibition therefore stands as an impressive tribute: for the first time, nearly 30 of Bouts’ works come together in Leuven, the city where he spent most of his life and where he painted his best work.

After the horrors of war and plague in the previous century, Leuven experienced a revival in the 15th century. The new university enabled the Brabant city, in eternal competition with Brussels, to experience its glory days. The richness of Bouts’ scenes, the power of his portraits, and his otherworldly landscapes reflect the situation of 15th-century Louvain. However, the exhibition aims to subvert the image of Bouts: indeed, today we are not allowed to look at Bouts as an artist. The typical image we have today of the artist did not exist in the 15th century. Dieric Bouts was not a romantic genius or a brilliant inventor: rather, he was an image-maker. He painted what his patrons expected of him and excelled at it. So according to the exhibition organizers, it makes sense to compare him with today’s image makers: sports photographers, filmmakers, game developers. Museum M Leuven puts them side by side with the old master.

The exhibition is divided into five sections. The first is devoted to portraiture, understood in a broad sense. Indeed, it starts from the context of 15th-century Leuven, a city where visual culture changed and paintings previously reserved for the aristocracy and clergy penetrated a wider stratum of the population. Neither kings nor popes could offer an answer to the devastation of the 14th century. Neither penance nor donations to the church helped against the plague. People sought new answers and no longer relied on existing power to provide them. The spiritual renewal movement of Devotio Moderna was successful in the Netherlands, launching the then surprising idea that we too could take our destiny into our own hands. There was also a new and flourishing market for devotional images among wealthy citizens, particularly for portraits of Christ and Mary. The special feature was that these portraits possessed a high spiritual charge, a divine “energy.” They counted not simply as images of the divine, but as divine in their own right. Like a relic of a saint, but no longer reserved exclusively for the church as was the case in the past. Two of these portraits are Bouts’ Vir Dolorum and Face of Christ. They refer to Veronica’s shroud. Something similar happened with the portraits of Mary. The basic idea was that she was portrayed with her Child by the evangelist St. Luke. Of the famous Madonna of Cambrai, which still in the 15th century was presumed to be the original portrait, countless copies and variations were made.

In the 15th century it was therefore a custom to paint the face of Christ. It was a devotional image that showed how deeply Christ had suffered for humanity. The intention, in the best tradition of Devotio Moderna, was for the viewer to participate in that suffering. This is exactly how sports photographers portray cyclists today. We stand in silent adoration of their epic climbs, supernatural physical exertion, all of the above. But in the end, the winner, arms wide, crosses the finish line like a hero. The suffering was great, but the victory total. Some of these portraits will be on display in the exhibition.

The second section is devoted to the theme of perspective: Dieric Bouts was among the first Flemings to embrace the new theories of perspective arriving from Italy. If Bouts made it into art history textbooks, according to the exhibition this has much to do with his application of vanishing point perspective. Today, with our eyes accustomed to thousands of images a day, we hardly notice this innovation, but for 15th-century viewers it must have been surprising. The German philosopher Cusanus attached a theological idea to it, the imaginary point where everything comes together in God. This immediately gives another meaning to the frame around the painting. Behind this ’window’ there is not only a third dimension to be discovered but also a divine dimension. We know that Cusanus was twice asked to become a professor in Leuven, a city then a magnet for new ideas. It is therefore perfectly possible that Bouts had heard of his theory. If so, his pictorial enterprise served not only to create the illusion of reality, but also the spiritual dimension: we are all traveling toward the same point.

The third section is devoted to landscape. In the Middle Ages, landscapes were nothing more than decorative elements to illustrate the setting of the story, sometimes literally filling the corners of a miniature. Attitudes change in the 15th century. A weakness for realistic landscapes that create a different world is emerging in the new bourgeois culture. Dieric Bouts certainly did not invent landscape painting: there are wonderful examples of landscapes in the works of Jan van Eyck and Rogier Van der Weyden, but Bouts certainly takes it a step further. He perfected visual techniques and gave depth to the landscape, with techniques that would continue to spread to the rest of Europe and that for centuries to come would be among the core skills of every classically trained painter. However, the world Bouts creates so realistically is not our own. Dramatic rock formations and exotic plants were no more a part of the Flemish landscape then than they are now. To see something like that, a viewer would have had to travel to the Middle East as well. Some obviously did even then-there had already been several crusades-but for the average viewer, the universe created by Bouts was definitely a different world. In doing so, the artist appealed to new emotions that would surely have satisfied the emerging urban elite, composed of people who wanted to dream.

Dieric Bouts was thus a landscape pioneer. In doing so, he sought the tension between realism (creating depth as realistically as possible) and fantasy (this is a world that is not ours). Science fiction was born out of the same friction-this is how the exhibition introduces the universe created by George Lucas in Star Wars. His characters are tangible and alien life is also fleshed out, with emotions like our own. But the costumes, sets and fantastic storytelling leave no doubt: this is a world far, far away.

The theme of the everyday is the theme of the fourth section. The entirely new use of depth in the Renaissance, whether through landscapes or vantage point perspective, opens up a whole world of possibilities. For the first time, a stage emerges behind the frame of the painting, a scene that can be filled with characters, objects, interiors, in short, anything. What does Dieric Bouts choose to do? Art historians such as Erwin Panofsky have long set the tone for the interpretation of the Flemish masters. He read almost every element in every painting as a symbol. The dog at the feet of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini is a symbol of fidelity, a lily at Mary’s shoulders is a symbol of her virginity, a palm tree represents the Heavenly Jerusalem. That symbolic reading usually makes sense, as evidenced by the countless other dogs, lilies and palms used by other masters in the same context. But perhaps there are limits to the ’disguised symbolism’ theory. For example, how does one interpret the sheet hanging at the edge of the table in Bouts’ Last Supper? Is it a foreshadowing of the shroud in which Christ will be wrapped the next day? Or is it just a tablecloth in beautifully painted drapery? Do the knives on the table anticipate the tortures that await Christ? Or are they just for cutting sandwiches in half? Sometimes what is seen is simply what is, according to the exhibition. The method of symbolic reading has become so ingrained that we risk falling into the trap of interpreting every glass and decorative element as something else. Theologians helped shape Bouts’ world, and many of his scenes really do contain double meaning. But looking at it through a different lens brings a breath of fresh air-this is the thesis of the exhibition. The painter portraying objects and costumes as they appeared in his time, simply to create a contemporary (for them) atmosphere.

The exhibition’s ’grand finale’ is Dieric Bouts’Last Supper. For this exhibition, Bouts’ most famous work will temporarily move from St. Peter’s Church to the M Leuven Museum, where it is the subject of an in-depth study.

For all information you can visit the M Leuven museum website.

Image: Dieric Bouts, Last Supper (1464-1468; oil on panel, 185 x 294 cm; Leuven, St. Peter’s)

A major exhibition in Leuven on Dieric Bouts, master of the Flemish Renaissance
A major exhibition in Leuven on Dieric Bouts, master of the Flemish Renaissance

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