RELIGIOUS ART AND THE RISE OF CAPITALISM: THE NARRATIVE OF BOURGEOISIE PATRONAGE IN THE NORTHERN RENAISSANCE
Ryan Fritsch 99-06135
History of Art 340A Dr. Catherine Harding University of Victoria 26 November 1999
. Certainly. reveal a patronage not of simple prestigious expenditure or to enhance acts of
Prevenier. Few points in history expose this co-evolution more clearly than the emergence of the capitalist classes during the Northern Renaissance. New York: Cambridge University Press. attempt to balance the the avaricious and usurious secular activities of the respective patrons with their need to appease the dogma of the Church and the judgment of heaven. when you consider patronage in context of the social and economic factors governing the the lives of the patrons. the “Madonna with Canon Van der Paele” and “Madonna with Chancellor Rolin”.
. (1986). The patronage of painting can be read in many ways. However. and illustrate how these paintings. I will present an interpretation of two of Van Eyck’s significant commissions of bourgeoisie devotional patronage. 320. The eventual results of this pre-Reformation period were expressed socially in two ways: in literature. in context of the socio-economic changes taking place in the preReformation Northern Renaissance. and on many levels. In these Jan Van Eyck paintings. in art. As art and society are intrinsically linked on such a visceral level. it is only natural to surmise that as one changes so does the other. The Burgundian Netherlands. Walter. 320. Prevenier. more obvious interpretations of religious art patronage focus on the demonstration of “high social standing. The middle of the fifteenth century in northern Europe was a tumultuous boiling-pot of revolutionary political and philosophical thought. The Burgundian Netherlands. New York: Cambridge University Press.. through the harshly critical 95 Thesis of Martin Luther. We can demonstrate such analysis in the patronage of Chancellor Rolin’s 1435 commission of the “Madonna with the Chancellor Rolin” and Canon Van der Paele’s 1436 commission of the “Madonna with Canon Van der Paele”. Walter. In this essay. the examination of the detailed and complex symbolism within the images and careful consideration of the social and economic changes taking place at the time. (1986). 331. New York: Cambridge University Press. through the “devotional patronage” of Jan Van Eyck. a time when tensions between the practical implications of an emergent mercantile class and religious conservatism were becoming increasingly manifest.Fritsch 2 Art is the visual voice of the society in which it is created. as a prestigious expenditure”1 or to “enhance acts of worship”2 in an impressive public demonstration. 3 Prevenier. much deeper levels of interpretation exist. or even to “legitimize the office they held”3 through ecclesiastical license. The Burgundian Netherlands. (1986). Walter.
for the need to satisfy the ecclesiastical world of business with the secular world of business was of immense import. In his masterpiece Summa Theologica. were thus seen as a redemption for earthly sins.”7 Further. dealings where a profit was made through the reception of interest. and society.. As economic power in Europe shifted away from Italy and to the new bourgeois economy at Antwerp5 . were to be regulated in accordance with the law of God. or usury. insurance against loss. he argued. and industry. For those in business. Business in the Middle Ages. and a modest amount left over for the well being and living of the individual. commerce. was “contrary to the justice established by divine law. 82. Hence. 13. according to divine law. remarking that “ divine law leaves nothing unpunished which is contrary to virtue. (1990). London: Penguin Books Ltd. New York: Henry Holt & Co.H. Summerfield (1937). Thomas Aquinas outlines his theological doctrine of the just price. New York: Cambridge University Press. R. London: Penguin Books Ltd. like the Aristotelian model he is interpreting Christianity through. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. 7 Baldwin. with a sum added only so much as is required to cover the cost of the materials. the patronage of Rolin and Van der Paele reveals itself as something less than
Prevenier. Business in the Middle Ages.H. the patron’s “concern for his own salvation. 6 Baldwin. 8 Tawney.
. education and science. (1986). Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. the chief worry was of committing the sins of usury and avarice. 100. Tawney.Fritsch 3 worship appears.”4
Chancellor Rolin and Canon Van der Paele had much to be concerned about. St. 316. the merchant and trader should ensure that the price they are charging for the application of their labour should be no more than the costs of production. Works of art. R. (1990). However. ecclesiastical power was still paramount. one was expected to do good things with their excess of money. Walter. law. and the extremely wealthy Rolin and Van der Paele had to ensure that they operated well within the bounds dictated by dogma of the Christian church. New York: Henry Holt & Co.. they found themselves ensconced in a fascinating time in history when the mercantile classes and international trade and finance were ascendant. the State. as much attention was paid to the “moral balance sheet” as to the economic one. as “all departments of life. it is considered unlawful if the equality required by justice is not observed in buying and selling. but rather. And to ensure a healthy moral balance sheet. 14. The result of this was that at the end of the day. The Burgundian Netherlands.”8 In this light. like a concrete prayer. Summerfield (1937).”6 For Aquinas then.
Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.”10 Rolin had much reason to worry about the sins of usury and avarice. he founded in 1443 the social hospital of the Hôtel-Dieu. New York: Cambridge University Press. James. The first thing that strikes the viewer is how close Rolin physically is the Virgin and Christ Child. Northern Renaissance Art. Northern Renaissance Art.. For the iconography of “Madonna with Chancellor Rolin” divides the painting into left and right. it is important to note that.”12 And yet. 110.. willing to give the life of his only son in an expression of unwavering religious faith. (1990).”11 Clearly. And we can see this preoccupation reflected in the “Madonna with Chancellor Rolin”. 328. a “type of par excellence of the institution of the Eucharist”13 . Northern Renaissance Art.
Tawney.. New York: Harry N. and one of the “ most important entrepreneurs of wine in Burgundy [whose] vineyards were of major importance for the economic well-being in.Autun. R.and a means whereby he could spend his wealth. Walter.
. and ensuring that his moral balance sheet was well in order would have been of paramount concern. As a shrewd and wealthy capitalist. The Burgundian Netherlands. wisely and honorably.. London: Penguin Books Ltd. his social conscience and was at the forefront of his mind throughout his life. New York: Harry N. 1985. James. Snyder. New York: Harry N. To this end. 1985. from the time of Augustine. the purchasing of the way to eternal sanctity and redemption. emphasizing the offering of the bloodless Christian sacrifice. is depicted the meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek. as if “Mary has joined the donor. these two figures seem oddly distanced. what emerges in the narrative of Van Eyck’s commissioned works is not purely devotional. accumulated in government service. Abraham too is representative of the ultimate sacrifice. Abrams Inc. and clearly separate in their own worlds. This story was. James. (1986)..[in a] mystical visitation.H.. 98. Abrams Inc. Abrams Inc.Fritsch 4 purely devotional: motivated by the need to commensurate their secular activities of daily business with their ecclesiastical indoctrination. That Luther harshly criticized these demonstrations that “ all things have their price . some time after commissioning the painting from Van Eyck in 1435. 13 Snyder. 1985. for example. stressing the heavenly and pious against the earthly and secular aspects of religious activity. 11 Prevenier. but devotional patronage. 12 Snyder. In the capital of the pillar above the Virgin. 109.future salvation as much as present felicity ”9 was of little consequence to these new individualists. “undoubtedly a socially motivated act of piety. 110.
The message for Rolin is that much emphatic when you consider that both stories revolved around wine. 110.Fritsch 5 Contrast this to the left-handed pillar above Rolin. Northern Renaissance Art. that of the priestly and that of the militant14 . 110. Rolin’s chief industry. and against the gluttonous sins of avarice and usury. 1985. very ill and on his death bed15 .Through iconographical analysis. the Canon commissioned the grand “Madonna with Canon Van der Paele” to appeal to the compassionate Virgin and forgive him of his sins committed on earth. Between these two separate worlds. and hence. indulged himself and was drunk. We can find this dialectic between the earthly and the heavenly. is the Augustinian ‘City of God.’ represented by an innumerable population of churches. it also reveals the relationship that the Canon Van der Paele shares with this common bond. his place in ecclesiastical life. gluttonous nature of man on Earth and of the piousness of ecclesiastical action on the other there could not be. 1985. New York: Harry N. This emphasis of Rolin’s that he wished to unify and balance the secular with the ecclesiastical world finds further evidence in the background presented in the picture. after having planted the first antediluvian grapevine. Thus. we find that. Behind Rolin. wine serves as the substance of man’s salvation. His symbolic recognition
Snyder. Further. Abrams Inc. Behind Mary. The obvious And this bridge needed to be built by Rolin to ensure his place in the afterlife. Northern Renaissance Art. considering that “above the earthly donor. Snyder. secular and ecclesiastical more subtly expressed in the Canon’s Van Eyck commission. detailing tan episode from the life of Noah who. above Mary and Christ. Here.
. with use of the recognizable library of Christian symbolism employed throughout the painting. uniting his perilous world with the pious and perfect ecclesiastical one. James. Abrams Inc. we see the rolling green hillside of his vineyard holdings. the iconography separates the painting into two different conceptions of religious activity. we find a connection in the form of a bridge. and then unites this heavenly and earthly dichotomy existent within the wealthy Canon Van der Paele through the common bond of the Virgin Mary and her Christ Child. spires reaching high towards the heavens. A greater contrast between the weak. man is debased by wine. James. And build this bridge he did. New York: Harry N. through the commission of this work.” the conclusion is evident that Rolin wished to emphasize that he conducted his business with a mind to pious activity.
Contrast this to the left-handed character of St. with the humanly imperfect Samson defeating the lion on the right. of the perfection of heaven and the fallacies of earth. the chair-arm figure of Adam on the left. Standing dominant on the Virgin’s right. fearing reprisal in the afterlife for the committing of Earthly sin. the struggle of corrupt Cain and sinless Abel on the left. is Saint Donatian. The dichotomy between left and right. Indeed. while Eve and connotations of her original sin are on the right. there is an evident separation of the priestly and the militant. serve to show his unwavering religious faith and the Grace of God that goes with him. a connection can be made between the divine on the left and the realm of man on the right. With all iconographical elements of the painting unified through the divine presence of the Virgin and her Christ Child. she occupies both the realm of man and that of heaven. cast a divine radiance into the picture and further reveal his heavenly faith.Fritsch 6 of the cycle of life and death speaks to this point. which lit. If one focuses now on the iconography surrounding the Virgin. while it’s right-sided counterpart shows Abraham slaying the armies of the Chedorlaomer. Positioned centrally in the circular apse of a church. the Virgin reflects the role given to her by the Church in the fifteenth century as the one predestined to bring about the redemption of man from the sin of Eve. religious beliefs) to her.e. The fortitude and
. who actively sought out and slew a dragon. it is possible to focus upon the Canon Van der Paele’s relationship (i. as a symbolic “rose without thorns”. stressing the heavenly priestly and earthly militant aspects of religious activity. is furthered emphasized through continued iconography: the pillar capital on the left showing Abraham meeting with Melchizedek . and acts therefore as an intermediary between the two. His passive story of having been cast into the Tiber for his religious beliefs. for example. and demonstrates how. George. In her state of unmarred perfection. and to begin anew the cycle of birth. heavenly perfection and earthly fault. and examine how he appeals to the unifying force of the Virgin and Christ Child. and the miraculous revitalization of his drowned corpse through prayer. death and resurrection. the Canon is trying to buy his way to forgiveness. This is further emphasized by the wheel of five candles that he is holding. For the iconography of “Madonna with Canon van der Paele” divides the painting into left and right. an example of good triumphing over evil on earth.
and surrounded by iconography that denotes fortitude and strength. and in the cyclical fall and redemption of man is revealed through iconography. purity and piousness.Fritsch 7 strength of the Canon’s faith. At the same time that the Canon is down on his knees. Saint George. and his supplicance before the judgment of God. he is also kneeling in prayer before the transcendent entity that unites these two worlds. or through the use of anemone flowers in the painting. the purchasing
. Van Eyck’s commissioned painting is clearly reflective of the Canon van der Paele’s preparation for his own death. priestly and militant. we can directly link him to all other iconographical references through their extended meanings and connection to divine and earthly. The conclusion that one draws then is evident. The patronage of Chancellor Rolin and of Canon Van der Paele reveals itself as something less than purely devotional: motivated by the need to balance their avaricious and usurious economic secular activities with their ecclesiastical indoctrination. resurrection and redemption revealed through the many references to the Passion of Christ. in his belief in deliverance. This double reference to redemption and illness is key. In the analysis these two paintings in context of the socioeconomic realities of the fifteenth century. the Canon van der Paele makes a powerful statement of his awareness of his ecclesiastical role. fall and deliverance. His fortitude and strength represented in the struggle of Samson with the lion and the allusion to the symbolic pillars that are present in the structure of the church. since knowing that the Canon van der Paele himself was gravely ill at the time that he commissioned the painting. and shouldered by the symbol of righteous action on earth. which not only reference the Passion of Christ but also illness. sin and redemption. His cyclical notions of birth. personifies. such as the thorn-eating Goldfinch clasped in the Christ Child’s hand. His belief in deliverance is shown through the victories of good over evil by Saint George or Abraham. his desire to place himself ecclesiastically and show the religious faith that he maintains. Saint Donatian. Clothed in the white robes of innocence. looking directly at and appealing to the divine faith that the patron saint of Bruges. the Virgin May and the Christ Child. death. what emerges in the narrative of Van Eyck is not purely devotional. a new understanding of the patronage of Canon Van der Paele and Chancellor Rolin has been reached. but rather “devotional patronage”.
and did so through their devotional patronage of Van Eyck.. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. and the soul. the shrewd Chancellor constructed a literal bridge.H. Both Chancellor Rolin and Canon Van der Paele needed to build bridges. and in the premeditated iconography and carefully considered arrangement within the two images themselves. but solus cum solo.Fritsch 8 of the way to eternal sanctity and redemption through iconographical appeal to the Virgin for forgiveness in heaven for the avaricious and usury sins committed on Earth through. In his commission. as “God speaks to the soul. Thus the bridges between the worlds of spirit and of sense are broken. The Canon Van der Paele was somewhat more subtle. spanning the gap between his grape fields and the fields of God on the opposing bank.
. these two men felt the need to balance their secular pursuits with their ecclesiastical well-being. bridging the gap between his secular and ecclesiastical activities through religious devotion and the providence of Saints. as a voice in the heart and in the heart alone.”16
Tawney.may enter into communion with its Maker. London: Penguin Books Ltd. This belief finds expression in the criticism of Martin Luther.. (1990). Whatever the means. the social and economic factors of daily life in the fifteenth century. R. uniting the divided world that they lived in. not through the meditation of the priesthood or of social institutions built up by man. practically expressing in the physical world the requirement of faith to leap the gap between the world of the senses and the world of heaven. 105.