All this wasteful splendor reaches its climax in the festivities of the court. Everyone remembers the descriptions of the Burgundian court festivities, such as the banquet at Lille in 1454, where the guests took their vows to participate in the crusade against the Turks while the pheasants were being served, or the wedding feast of Charles the Bold and Margareth of York at Bruges in 1468. We cannot imagine a greater distance than that which exists between the consecrated atmosphere of the Ghent and Louvain altars and these expressions of barbaric princely ostentation. The descriptions of all those estremets with pastry from within which musicians performed, the overly ornate ships and castles, the monkeys, whales, giants, and dwarfs, and all the worn allegory belonging to them force us to see them as unusually insipid performances.
However, isn’t the distance we perceive between the two extremes of church art and the art of the court festivities easily exaggerated in more than one respect? First of all, we have to be clear about the function that the festivity served in society. It still had the purpose that it had among primitive peoples; that is, to be the sovereign expression of the culture, to be the form in which the highest joy of life was expressed by the community, and to express the sense of that community. During times of great social renewal, such as at the time of the French Revolution, festivities sometimes regain that important social and aesthetic function.
Modern man is in a position to seek individually the confirmation of his view of life and the purest enjoyment of his joie de vivre during any moment of leisure in self-chosen relaxations. But an age in which the spiritual luxuries are still poorly distributed and less accessible requires for the purpose of renewal a communal act: the festival. The greater the contrast with the misery of daily life, the more indispensable the festival and the stronger the means required to bestow splendor on life by virtue of the ecstasy of beauty and enjoyment that lights up the darkness of reality. The fifteenth century was an age of great emotional depression and thorough pessimism. We have already mentioned earlier the permanent pressure from injustice and violence, hell and damnation, pestilence, fire and hunger, Satan and the witches, under which the century lived. Mankind in its wretchedness needed more than the daily repeated promise of heavenly bliss and God’s watchful care and benevolence: from time to time a glorious, solemn, and communal affirmation of the beauty of life was required. The enjoyment of life in its primary forms—play, love, drink, dance, and song—does not suffice. Life has to be ennobled through beauty, to be stylized in a social expression of the joy of life. For the individual, relief through the reading of books, listening to music, seeing art, or enjoying nature was still out of reach; books were too expensive, nature too dangerous, and art was no more than a small part of the festival.
The folk festival had only song and dance for its original sources of beauty. For the beauty of color and form folk festivals based themselves on church festivals, which had both in abundance, and usually took place immediately after a church festival. The separation of the urban festival from the church form, and its establishment of a decor of its own, took place throughout the entire fifteenth century through the labor of the rhetoricians. Prior to this time, the princely courts had been in a position both to arrange a purely secular festival with an attendant display of art and to bestow on the festival a splendor of its own. But display and splendor are not sufficient for festivals; nothing is as indispensable for them as style.