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The Cult of the
Banks, Burgundy
and Piracy:
The 15th century artists of Bruges.

Report of the lecture given by the
Rt Revd Dr Christopher Herbert PhD
on September 22nd 2010

Having just returned from a trip to Bruges it was fascinating to hear how this little Venice of the North, with its delightful canals and waterways, now such a thriving centre of tourism was once an economic powerhouse for Europe.
The talk began by looking at some of the highlights of Bruges' beautiful buildings and churches - such as the Ghent Gate, the Market Hall and the Alms Houses with their distinctive Flemish style. A building of particular interest was St John's Hospital, a religious home for nuns who chose not to take their vows but lived and worked in a pious way and were known as the Begijns Order.

We were transported back to the 15th century when wool from England was arriving in the port as fast as silk and other luxury goods could be shipped back. Much of the wool trade was with Venice and Florence and so it was not long before the Medici family became involved and, with their best commercial hats on, formed one of the major banks in Bruges to be managed by Tomasso Porterini - badly, it would later turn out!

Flanders had become part of The House of Burgundy dynasty and we followed a brief history through John the Fearless, Philip the Good and on to Charles the Bold who was to marry Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV.

An example of the bad management of Portinari was the vast amount of money he lent Edward IV for the sumptuous wedding of Margaret to Charles the Good - money that the Medici Bank did not have the reserves to cover later. Is this a familiar story we ask? When the banking turmoil eventually came to a crux an agreement was made with Edward IV that certain tariffs on the wool imports could be waived in order to service the loan, but this was never sufficient and the Medici Bank went into liquidation - Yes, all a very familiar story!

However, whilst times were good it was people like Portinari and the rich merchantmen that commissioned great works of art such as those by Hans Memling and Jan Van Eyk which we examined in close detail with an explanation of their symbolism. For example, a triptych altar piece would always have the infant Jesus naked rather than in swaddling clothes to demonstrate 'the flesh of Our Lord' in the taking of the sacraments.

Van Eyk was often attributed with the invention of oil painting but this is now thought unlikely although he was masterly with the use of it. He would use several layers to obtain a depth of glow. He was also the first to break with tradition in the rigidity of composition and used landscape scenes in the distant background.

This was a fascinating lecture which linked art, power and politics together in a relaxed and amusing way.

Julie Rashbrooke

The Rt Rev Christopher Herbert, a former Bishop of St. Alban's, has an MPhil and PhD in Art History from the University of Leicester. He lectures widely in the UK and in Italy.