This taste for splendid extravagance would undoubtedly catch our attention forcefully if we could see the lost secular decorative arts. The surviving works of art most decidedly do share that tendency towards extravagance, but since we value this quality in art least, we pay less attention to it. We only seek to enjoy the profound beauty of any given work. Everything that is mere splendor and pomp has lost its attraction for us. For contemporaries, however, this very pomp and splendor was of tremendous importance.
French-Burgundian culture of the waning Middle Ages counts among those cultures in which beauty is replaced by splendor. Late medieval art reflects the spirit of the late Middle Ages faithfully, a spirit that had run its course. What we had posited as one of the most important characteristics of late medieval thought, the depiction of everything that could be thought down to the smallest detail, the oversaturation of the mind with an endless system of formal representation, this, too, constitutes the essence of the art of that time. Art, too, tries to leave nothing unformed, unpresented, or undecorated. The flamboyant Gothic is like an endless organ postlude; it breaks down all forms by this self-analyzing process; every detail finds its continuous elaboration, each line its counter line. It is an unrestrainedly wild overgrowth of the idea by the form; ornate detail attacks every surface and line. That horror vacui, which may perhaps be identified as a characteristic of end periods of intellectual development, dominates in this art.
This all means that the boundaries between splendor and beauty become less distinct. Embellishment and ornamentation no longer serve the glorification of the naturally beautiful, but rather overgrow and thus threaten to choke it. The farther the departure from purely pictorial art, the more unrestrained the wild overgrowth of formal ornamentation covering content. There is little opportunity for sculpture to engage in this wild growth of forms as long as it creates freestanding figures: the statues of the Moses Fountain and the “plourants” of the tombstones compete, in their strict, simple, naturalness, with Donatello. But as soon as the task of the art of sculpture is of a decorative nature or falls into the realm of painting and, bound by the reduced dimensions of the relief, reproduces entire scenes, sculpture, too, overindulges in restless, overloaded displays. Those who see the carvings by Jacques de Baerze at the tabernacle in Dijon next to the paintings of Broederlam will notice the disharmony between them. In painting, wherever it is purely representational, simplicity and quietude dominate; carving, by its very nature decorative, treats the shaping of figures ornamentally, and one perceives the phenomenon of forms crowding each other out as something that supplants the quietude of the painted object. The difference between painting and tapestries is of the same kind. The art of weaving, even in cases where it assumes a task of a purely representational nature, by virtue of its set technique, stands closer to ornamentation and is unable to extricate itself from the exaggerated need for embellishment. Tapestries are overcrowded with figures and colors and remain apparently archaic in form. Departing still further from the pure fine arts, we encounter clothing. Clothing, too, belongs undeniably to art, but it is part of its very purpose that allure and ostentation predominate over beauty itself. Moreover, personal vanity pulls the art of clothing into the sphere of passion and sensuousness where the qualities that comprise the essence of high art, balance and harmony, come second.
An extravagance like that found in the style of dress between 1350 and 1480 has not been experienced in later ages, at least not in such a general and sustained way. Certainly there have been extravagant fashions in later times, such as the dress of the mercenaries around 1520 and aristocratic French costume in 1660, but the unrestrained exaggeration and over profusion so characteristic of French-Burgundian dress for a century has no parallel. In their dress we are privileged to observe what the sense of beauty of that age, left to its own undisturbed impulses, would accomplish. A court costume is overburdened with hundreds of precious stones and all its proportions are exaggerated to a ridiculous degree; the headdress of women assumes the sugarloaf form of the hennin; natural hair is hidden or removed at the temples and from the area of the forehead at the hairline, so that the curiously vaulted foreheads that were considered beautiful were prominently displayed. The décolletage began abruptly. Male garments, however, displayed still more numerous extravagances; most striking of all, the elongated toes of the shoes, the poulaines, which the knights at Nicopolis had to cut off in order to be able to flee, the narrow waists, the balloon-like puffed-up sleeves that rose at the shoulders, the houpelandes dangling to the feet, and the short jackets that barely covered the hips, the tall caps or hats narrowing at the tips or shaped like a cylinder, the bonnets wondrously draped around the head reminiscent of a cock’s comb or a flickering flame. The more festive the more extravagant, since all this beauty was equated with splendor, stateliness, estat. The mourning dress that Philip the Good wears after the murder of his father while receiving the King of England is so long that it trails from the tall horse he is riding all the way to the ground.