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Habsburgs imperialisme en de verspreiding van renaissancevormen in de Nederlanden: de vensters van Michiel Coxcie in de Sint-Goedele te Brussel

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The introduction and diffusion of Italian Renaissance forms in sixteenth-century Netherlandish art has usually been described as a process initiated by artists who travelled south, adopted the new style and reaped success after their return to the Netherlands. In giving full credit to the artists and considering this phcnomenon to be a process of artistic exchange in the modern sense, art historians have wrongly disregarded the historical circumstances that caused patrons' preference for the new style. The earliest use of Renaissance forms in the Low Countries on a large scale may be observed in the triumphal decorations of the 1515 Joyeuse Entrée of Charles of Hapsburg, the future emperor, in the town of Bruges. From that moment on, Renaissance forms were used abundantly in objects which served as a kind of propaganda for Hapsburg policy, such as church windows and chimney-pieces glorifying Charles v and the Hapsburg dynasty. Antique motifs fitted well in the imperialist visual language favoured by the Hapsburg dynasty and the Dutch nobles who supported its power politics. Derived from imperial Roman monuments, these forms unequivocally alluded to the absolute power of the ancient ancestors of the Holy Roman Emperor, thus legitimizing his authority. In the author's opinion this functional aspect is one of the main reasons for the ready acceptance and diffusion of the Renaissance style in the Low Countries. One of the first artists to travel from the Netherlands to Italy was the painter Michiel Coxcie (Malines 1499-1592). He stayed in Rome from about 1530 to 1538, painting several frescoes in Roman churches which brought him recognition among Italian colleagues. Only one example has survived: the fresco cycle in the chapel of St. Barbara in S. Maria dell'Anima, which he painted between 1532 and 1534. His mastery of the 'maniera italiana', which is evident in these paintings, is highly praised by Vasari, who met Coxcie in Rome in 1532. Vasari also states that Coxcie transferred the 'maniera italiana' to the Netherlands. Upon his return to Malines in 1539, Coxcie received several prestigious commissions, of which perhaps the most outstanding was to paint cartoons for the stained glass windows in the church of St. Gudule in Brussels, with its decoration of triumphal arches glorifying the Hapsburg dynasty. His ability to work in the high Renaissance style gained him the favour of Charles v and his sister, Mary of Hungary, governess of the Netherlands, who engaged him as a court painter. In the said series of Brussels windows, a remarkable change of style regarding the use of Renaissance forms is to be observed after Coxcie started supplying the cartoons in 1541. The windows completed between 1537 and 1540 had been made under the supervision of Bernard van Orley, allegedly Coxcie's teacher. They were rendered in an early Renaissance style characterized by the hybrid Italianate motifs that were in fashion during the 1520S and 1530s. Upon Orley's death in 1541, Coxcie was appointed his successor as cartoon painter for St. Gudule. The first window for which he was responsible, the window of John III of Portugal in the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament, exhibits a distinct caesura: the architectural decoration is high Renaissance in the Vitruvian or Serlian sense and the human faces and postures are derived directly from the examples of Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo. After careful perusal of the documents concerning the production of the windows and study of the stylistic differences between the windows made before and after 1541 (and the related preparatory drawings), one cannot but conclude that Michiel Coxcie was the initiator of the use of the high Renaissance style in the Brussels windows. Hitherto Bernard van Orley has been credited for this, on the assumption that he designed the whole cycle, including all its ornamental details and stylistic features. Although his contribution to the diffusion of the high Renaissance style in Netherlandish art was decisive, Michiel Coxcie's return to the Low Countries should not be regarded as the principal incentive for this process. The general predilection for this style to be found after 1540 could be a consequence of the impressive presence of Charles v and his retinue in the Netherlands during that year. The emperor, who came to quell the Ghent resurrection against the central government, brought with him the style that had been used in the triumphal decorations which accompanied his entries to Italian towns during the 1530S. The influence exercised on prevailing taste by the ephemeral monuments erected on the occasion of imperial entries must have been considerable, as the Brussels windows clearly show.


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