There is nothing in our possession that could justify any such notion. The art of the Van Eycks’ , which we so admire, stood right in the middle of the courtly life that is so repugnant to us. The little we know of the life of those painters makes them appear to be men of the great world. The duke of Berry is on the best of terms with his painters. Froissart met him in intimate conversation with André Beauneveu in his marvelous castle at Mehun sur Yevre. The three brothers from Limburg, the great illustrators, delight the duke at New Year with a surprise: a newly illustrated manuscript, “un livre contrefait” consisting “d’un piece de bois blanc paincte en semblance d’un livre, où il n’a nulz feuillets ne riens escript.” There is no doubt that Jan van Eyck moved in courtly circles. The secret diplomatic missions entrusted to him by Philip the Good required knowledge of the world. He was regarded in his century as a literary man who read the classics and studied geometry. His modest motto has a touch of the bizarre: “Als ik kan”—”As I can”—disguised in Greek letters.
If not warned by these and similar facts, we may be easily inclined to see the art of the Van Eycks as occupying a different place than it does in the life of the fifteenth century. In our view, there were in that time two spheres of life that were strictly separated. On the one side, the culture of the court, the nobility, and the wealthy burghers: boastful, craving honor and wealth, riotously colored, glowing with passion; on the other side, the quiet, uniformly gray sphere of the devotio moderna: the serious men and the submissive wives of the middle class who sought spiritual support in the Fraterhouses and from the Windesheimers. This is also the sphere of Ruusbroec and of St. Colette. This is the sphere to which, according to our sentiments, the art of the Van Eycks with its pious quiet mysticism belongs. Yet it is more likely to be at home in the other sphere. The modern dévotés rejected the great art that unfolded during their age. They resisted polyphonic music and even organs, while the splendor-loving Burgundians Bishop David of Utrecht and Charles the Bold himself had the foremost composers as their masters of music, such men as Obrecht in Utrecht, Busnois for the duke, who even took him with him to his camp near Neuss. The Ordinarius of Windesheim prohibited any embellished songs, and Thomas a Kempis states: “If you cannot sing like the lark and the nightingale, sing like the raven and the frogs in the pond. They sing as God has given them to sing.” It is only natural that they commented less on painting, but they desired their books to be simple and not to be illustrated. It is very likely that they would have regarded even a work like the Adoration of the Lamb as an expression of unmitigated pride.
But was the separation of the two spheres really drawn as sharply as it appears to us? We have already spoken of that earlier. There are numerous points where the court circles and the circles of the strict God-fearing men and women contact one another. St. Colette and Denis the Carthusian have dealings with the dukes; Margareth of York, the second wife of Charles the Bold, takes a lively interest in the “reformed” monasteries of Belgium. Beatrix of Ravenstein, one of the most prominent individuals at the Burgundian court, wears the hair shirt under her robes of state. “Vestue de drap d’or et de royaux atournemens a luy duisans, et feignant estre la plus mondaine des autres, livrant ascout à toutes paroles perdues, comme maintes font, et monstrant de dehors de pareil usages avecques les lascives et huiseuses, portoit journellement la haire sur sa chair nue, jeunoit en pain et en eau mainte journée par fiction couverte, et son mary absent couchoit en la paille de on lit mainte nuyt.” The act of turning inwardly, which had become the permanent mode of life for the modern devotees, is also known to the haughty, even if only as a sporadic and faint echo of the sumptuous style of life. When Philip the Good departed for Regensburg after the great feast at Lille in order to negotiate with the emperor, several noblemen and women of the court joined the order “qui menèrent moult belle et saincte vie.” —The chroniclers who describe with such broad detail all the pomp and stateliness cannot help but repeat time and again a turning away from “pompes et beubans.” Even Olivier de la Marche ponders after the feast at Lille about “les oultraigeux excés et la grant despense qui pour la cause de ces banquetz ont esté faictz.” He saw no “entendement de vertu” in it, with the exception of the estremets in which the church appeared, but another sage at the court made it clear to him why things had to be as they were. Louis XI retained his hatred of everything that smacked of luxury, a hatred he had acquired during his stay at the court of Burgundy.