Translated by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch.
From ‘The autumn of the middle ages”, University of Chicago Press, 1996.
FRENCH-BURGUNDIAN CULTURE OF LATE MEDIEVAL times is best known to the present age through its fine art, most notably its painting. Our perception of the time is dominated by the brothers Van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Memling, and the sculptor Sluter. This has not always been the case. Some fifty years ago or even somewhat earlier, the average educated person knew those times primarily through their history. This knowledge was not, certainly, as a rule acquired directly from Monstrelet and Chastellain, but rather from De Barante’s Histoire des Dues de Bourgogne, which is based on those two authors. And is it not the case, that over and beyond De Barante, it was mostly Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris that embodied the image most people had of that period?
The image that came from these sources was grim and somber. The chroniclers themselves, and those who dealt with the subject during the Romantic period of the nineteenth century, allowed the dark and repulsive aspects of late medieval times to emerge: its bloody cruelty, its arrogance and its greed, its lust for revenge and its misery. The lighter colors in this depiction come from the splendidly bloated vanity of the famous court festivities that were replete with the sparkle of worn allegories and unbearable luxury.
And now? Now that age basks in our perception in the lofty, dignified seriousness and the deep peace of the Van Eycks and Memling; that world half a millennium ago appears to us to be permeated by a splendid light of simple gaiety, by a treasure of spiritual depth. The formerly wild and dark image has been transformed into one of peace and serenity. It seems as if all the evidence we have, in addition to the fine arts of that period, testifies to the presence of beauty and wisdom: the music of Dufay and his disciples, the words of Ruusbroec and Thomas à Kempis. Even in those places where the cruelty and misery of those times still reverberates loudly, in the history of Jeanne d’Arc and the poetry of Villon, we perceive nothing but loftiness and empathy.
What is the reason for this profoundly deep difference between the two images of this time, the one reflected in art and the other derived from history and literature? Is it a characteristic of that particular age that there was a great gulf between the different spheres and forms of life? Was the sphere of life from which the pure and spiritual art of the painters arose different and better than that of the princes, nobles, and litterateurs? Is it possible that the painters, along with Ruusbroec, the Windesheimers, and the folk song, belonged to a peaceful limbo on the outskirts of a glaring hell? Or is it a common phenomenon that the fine arts leave a brighter image of an age than the words of poets and historians?
The answer to the last question is absolutely affirmative. As a matter of fact, the image we have fashioned for ourselves of all earlier cultures has become more cheerful since we have turned from reading to seeing, and since our historical sense organ has become increasingly visual. The fine arts, the primary source for our perception of the past, do not openly lament. The bitter aftertaste produced by the pain of the ages evaporates in the fine arts. Once articulated in words, the lamentations over the suffering of the world always retain their tone of immediate grief and dissatisfaction, touching us always with sadness and pity; while suffering expressed through the means of the fine arts at once slips into the elegiac and serenely peaceful.