The artists worked in and for circles quite different than those of the Modern Devotion. Even though the roots of the flourishing of painting as well as those of the renewal of faith can be found in urban communal life, the art of the Van Eycks and their successors cannot be called bourgeois. The court and the nobility had taken possession of art. We actually owe the advance of the art of miniatures to that full artistic refinement that is characteristic of the work of the Limburg brothers and the Hours of Turin primarily to princely sponsorship. The fact of the matter is that the wealthy bourgeoisie of the large Belgian cities aspired to a noble form of life. The difference between the art of the southern Netherlands and France, on the one hand, and the little that we can call art in the northern Netherlands of the fifteenth century, on the other, is best understood as a difference in milieu: there the sumptuous mature life of Bruges, Ghent, and Brussels, in constant contact with the court; here a remote country town such as Haarlem, in every respect much more like the quiet towns of the Yssel that were home to the devotio moderna. If we may call the works of Dirk Bouts “Haarlemism” (what works of his we possess were created in the south, which had attracted him also), it is the simple, astringent, reserved qualities of his art that are genuinely bourgeois in contrast to the aristocratic conceits, the pompous elegance, pride, and glitter of the southern masters. The Haarlem school does indeed approach bourgeois seriousness.
The sponsors of the great paintings, as far as we know them, were nearly exclusively representatives of the great capitals of the age. They were the princes themselves, the high officials of the courts, and the great parvenus, so numerous during the Burgundian period and who took the court as their guiding model to the same degree as did the other sponsors of art. Burgundian power rests in particular on the ability to put the power of money into service and to create new powers of capital for the nobility through donations and favoritism. Those circles indulging in the displays of the Golden Fleece and in the ostentation of festivities and tournaments move in the form of life of the chivalric ideal. On that movingly pious painting of the Seven Sacraments in the museum at Antwerp, the coat of arms of the bishop of Tournay, Jean Chevrot, points to him as the most likely donor of the painting. He, next to Rolin, was the closest adviser of the duke, an eager servant in matters concerning the Golden Fleece and the grand project for the crusade. The type of the great capitalist of the time is Pieter Bladelyn, whose pious figure is known to us from the triptych that graces the altar of the church in his town of Middelburg in Flanders. He had climbed from the position of tax collector in his native Bruges to that of general ducal treasurer. Through frugality and strict control, he had improved governmental finances. He became treasurer of the Golden Fleece and was admitted to the order; in 1440 he was employed on the important mission to ransom Charles of Orléans from English captivity; he was scheduled to participate in the campaign against the Turks as financial administrator. His contemporaries were amazed over his wealth. He used it for the construction of dikes, and the founding of the new town of Middelburg.
Jodocus Vydt, who is shown on the Ghent altar as donor, and the prelate Van de Paele also were among the great capitalists of their time. The De Croys and the Lannoys are noble nouveaux riches. Contemporaries were shocked over the rise of Nicolas Rolin, the chancellor who, “venu de petit lieu,” as jurist, became a financier and diplomat employed in the positions of highest service. The great Burgundian treaties between 1419 and 1435 were his work. “Soloit tout gouverner tout seul et à part uy manier et porter tout, fust de guerre, fust de paix, fust en fait de finances.» He managed, by methods not entirely above reproach, to accumulate incredible wealth, which he used for numerous donations. In spite of this, his greed and arrogance were spoken of with the greatest hatred. The spirit of piety that drove him to make his donations was widely mistrusted. Rolin, kneeling so piously in the painting (now in the Louvre) by Jan van Eyck that he commissioned to be painted for his hometown of Autun and, yet again, just as piously, in the painting by Rogier van der Weyden, donated to the hospital in Beaune, was known for his exclusive concern with earthly matters. “He harvested the earth,” says Chastellain, “as if life on earth was eternal. This led his mind astray because he was unwilling to impose barriers or limitations even though his advanced age held his approaching end up to his eyes.” Jacques du Clercq comments, “Le dit chancellier fust reputé ung des sages hommes du royaume à parler temporellement: car au regard de l’espirituel je m’en tais.”