Those who think that an age can be comprehended in its entire reality through art leave a general error in historical criticism uncorrected. In respect to Burgundian times in particular, there is, moreover, the danger of a specific error of perception: the failure to correctly assess the relationship between the fine arts and the literary expressions of culture.
The observer is drawn into this mistake if he does not take into account that he begins by taking a very different position towards art than he does towards literature because of the difference in their state of preservation. The literature of the late medieval period, with a few individual exceptions, is known to us nearly completely. We know it in its highest and lowest forms, in all its categories and styles, ranging from the most lofty to the most ordinary, from the most theoretical to the most concrete. The entire life of the age is reflected and expressed in its literature. Further, the written tradition is not exhausted by literature alone; the entire corpus of official papers and documents is at our disposal to complete our information. The fine arts, in contrast, which already, by virtue of their particular nature, reflect the life of the age less directly and comprehensively, are only available to us in fragments. Only very few remnants survive outside of church art. All of the secular fine arts, most of the applied arts, are nearly completely missing; most lacking are those forms in which the changing facets of the connection between the production of art and the life of the community is revealed. What the limited treasury of altarpieces and tomb monuments teach us about this connection is far from enough; the image offered by art remains isolated outside our knowledge of the robust life of that age. For comprehending the function of the fine arts in life, the admiring study of the surviving masterpieces does not suffice: that which has been lost also demands our attention.
Art was still an integral part of life during that age. Life was shaped by strong forms and held together and measured by the sacraments of the church, the annual sequence of festivals, and the divisions of the day. The labors and joys of life all had their fixed forms: religion, knighthood, and courtly Minne provided the most important of these forms. Art had the task of embellishing the forms in which life was lived with beauty. What was sought was not art itself, but the beautiful life. In contrast to later ages, one did not step outside a more or less indifferent daily routine in order to enjoy art in solitary contemplation for the sake of solace or edification; rather, art was used to intensify the splendor of life itself. It is the destiny of art to vibrate in concert with the high points of life, be it in the highest flights of piety or in the proudest enjoyment of earthly moments. During the Middle Ages art was not yet perceived as beauty per se. It was for the most part applied art, even in cases where we would consider the works to be their own reason for being. That is to say, for the Middle Ages, the reason for desiring a given work of art rested in its purpose, rested in the fact that artworks are the servants of any one of the forms of life. In cases where, disregarding any practical uses, the pure ideal of beauty guides the creating artist himself, this happens to a large part subconsciously. The first sprouts of a love for art for its own sake appear as a wild growth on the production of art: princes and noblemen piled up objects of art until they became collections; this rendered them useless: they were then enjoyed as curiosities, as precious parts of the princely treasury. The actual sense of art that arises during the Renaissance has this foundation.