From Medieval to Modern: Gold and the Value of Representation in Early Netherlandish Painting

From Medieval to Modern: Gold and the Value of Representation in Early Netherlandish Painting

Publication Details

Author: Nuechterlein, Jeanne
Title: From Medieval to Modern: Gold and the Value of Representation in Early Netherlandish Painting
Place of Publication: York
Publisher: University of York, Department of History of Art
Date: 2013


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In recent decades, the historical significance of the panel paintings by Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and the Flémalle group has been subject to debate. This essay analyses the shifts in gilding practices that accompanied the introduction of the fifteenth-century ars nova, arguing that the new panel painting marked a self-conscious departure from the luxury arts by asserting its value through representation alone, rather than through material worth. From the 1420s-30s onwards, Netherlandish panel paintings rejected gold-leaf backgrounds, and they also increasingly either relegated gilding to small details such as halos and heavenly rays, or incorporated it into pictorial representation. In addition, these paintings display a particularly intensive visual dialogue with contemporary sculpture and brocaded textiles, as a means of exploring painting’s superior capacity to depict persuasive surfaces in spatial depth.

In establishing its independence from other contemporary art forms, and in promoting the intrinsic value of representation, early Netherlandish panel painting presaged the high status of painting in the ensuing centuries of the western canon, even though, in other respects, these works remained firmly rooted in earlier tradition. The rise of early Netherlandish painting thus sheds important light on the role of periodization within art-historical interpretation. Where a number of recent studies have perceived temporal instability within the content of medieval and Renaissance images, this essay proposes that historiographical assessment should take into account the specific material and conceptual qualities of different artistic media, and weigh the relative importance of their perceived references forwards and back in time.

The research for this project developed over many years and eventually coalesced into a size and shape in between a typical book and a typical journal article. Digital publication on the University of York’s History of Art Research Portal enables this essay to be presented at its full length, incorporating far more material—especially a greater number of detailed illustrations—than is possible in traditional printed journals. Publication at full length also enables it to combine typically disparate methodologies and sub-fields: historiography, methodological reflection, technical analysis, and close looking at artworks in different media, from luxury objects and sculpture to panel painting. Most critically, the visual apparatus of digital publication supports this essay’s emphasis on the importance of contingent looking within particular lighting circumstances, a feature rarely considered in art-historical studies.

Acknowledgements: This research has been generously supported by grants from the DAAD, the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust, and the Department of History of Art at the University of York.

licensed under a Creative Commons CC-BY-SA licenceThis work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England and Wales (CC BY-SA 2.0 UK) with the exception of images accompanied by a statement of copyright.