In the appreciation of the great works of art of the fifteenth century, particularly of altarpieces and tomb art, contemporaries went far beyond aesthetic considerations. Their importance and purpose outweighed their beauty by far. They had to be beautiful because the object was sacred or its purpose lofty. The purpose was always more or less practical in nature. Altarpieces have a twofold significance: ceremonially displayed during high festivals, they serve the purposes of elevating the piety of the congregation and keeping the memory of the pious donors alive. We know that the altarpiece of the Adoration of the Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck was only rarely opened. Whenever the administrators of the cities of the Netherlands ordered plaques illustrating famous judgments or legal acts to decorate the law courts in the town halls, for example the Judgment of Cambyses by Gerard David in Bruges, or the Judgment of the Emperor Otto by Dirk Bouts at Louvain, or the lost paintings from Brussels by Rogier van der Weyden, the purpose was to keep before the eyes of the judges a solemn and vibrant reminder of their duty. —Just how sensitive the reactions to the content of the depictions decorating the walls were is shown by the following instance. In 1384, a meeting was called in Lelinghem that, it was hoped, would lead to an armistice between France and England. The duke of Berry had the barren walls of the old chapel in which the princely emissaries were to meet decorated with tapestries depicting the battles of antiquity. But when John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, saw them upon entering the chapel, he demanded their removal: those aspiring to make peace should not have war and destruction depicted before them. In their place other tapestries were hung depicting the implements of the Passion of Christ.
The portrait is inseparably tied to its practical significance and, even in our own day, has retained its moral value as a family possession, because the feelings about life, the love of parents and family pride, which it serves, are much less used up than the forms of social life to which the legal scenes belong. Portraits also had the additional function of making those to be engaged to be married known to one another. Among the emissaries whom Philip the Good sent to Portugal in 1428 to find a bride for him was Jan van Eyck, who was to paint the portrait of the princess. Sometimes the fiction is maintained that the bridegroom had fallen in love with the unknown bride merely by looking at the portrait, as, for example, in the case of the courtship of Richard II of England with the six-year-old Isabella of France. There are even occasional claims that a choice had been made by comparing different portraits. When the young Charles VI of France has to take a wife and the choice falls among the daughters of the dukes of Bavaria, Austria, and Lorraine, an excellent painter is dispatched to paint portraits of all three candidates. The king is shown the pictures and chooses the fourteen-year-old Isabella of Bavaria, because he finds her by far the prettiest.
Nowhere else is the purpose of a work of art so predominantly practical as in the case of tomb monuments, which confronted sculpture in that age with its highest task. But the practical function of art was not restricted to sculpture alone. The intense desire for a visible image of the deceased had to be satisfied even during the funeral. On occasion, the deceased was represented by a living individual. During the funeral of Bertrand du Guesclin at St. Denis, four mounted knights in armor appeared in the church, “representans la personne du mort quand il vivoit.” A bill from the year 1375 mentions a funeral ceremony in the house of Polignac, “cinq sols à Blaise pour avoir fait le chevalier mort à la sepulture.” For royal funerals, a leather puppet fully dressed in princely regalia is most often used; the goal is always a near resemblance. It appears on some occasions that more than one such image would be present in a procession. The emotions of the people were focused on the sight of those images. The death mask, which made its appearance in France during the fifteenth century, probably originated in the fashioning of these funeral puppets.