Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 8, 1998
Bodo Brinkmann Die Flämische Buchmalerei am Ende des Burgunderreichs: Der Meister des Dresdener Gebetbuchs und die Miniaturisten seiner Zeit Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 1997. 441 pp.; 63 color ills.; 367 b/w ills. Cloth €85.00 (2503505651)

The subject of this monograph is the Netherlandish book illuminator whom Friedrich Winkler named the Master of the Dresden Prayerbook in 1914 after a Book of Hours—not a Prayerbook—in the State Library of Saxony (ms. A.311). Although some thirty ascriptions to the artist have been made in the eighty years since Winkler’s pioneering essay, Brinkmann is the first scholar carefully and systematically to examine the painter’s entire output.

Brinkmann has enlarged that output to fifty-two manuscripts, four groups of cuttings, and two incunabula. All of the works are individually examined, the majority in chronological order; most of the illuminations themselves are also reproduced, over 60 of them in color, together with more than 100 relevant comparative illustrations. The printing of the two volumes on heavily coated paper assures that most of the reproductions are of excellent quality. A checklist of works by the master and shortlists of works by artists in his circle follow the text.

There are some frustrating aspects to Brinkmann’s study. Its foundation is a dissertation, completed in 1990 under the direction of Reiner Haussherr at the Free University of Berlin. The book’s fragmentation into complexly numbered sub-chapters and the author’s tendency to overdefend his arguments betray its origins. While most useful, the checklist provides some, but not all, of the information that the reader needs. For example, the checklist informs us that the “rectangular images” (rechteckigen Bildfelder, p. 388) in the Huth Hours (London, Brit. Lib. Add. 38126) are by Simon Marmion, but we are not told there or in the essay that the textblock contains fully fifty images, none of them reproduced. Given both their number and what they tell us about the making of the book, they are hardly insignificant, yet the reader could be forgiven for not realizing that they even exist.

Iconography also receives rather short shrift in Brinkmann’s study. As a result, exceptional subject matter like that in the unequalled Isabella Breviary (London, Brit. Lib. Add. 18851) is not explored as fully as it might have been. The chronological development of the Dresden Prayerbook Master is also frequently interrupted by excurses that, while perceptive, informative, and valuable, break the flow of Brinkmann’s presentation and could have been relegated to appendices. One also wonders whether those books that are treated out of chronological order, like the Hours of Jean de Carpentin (priv. coll., s.n.), would have been better served by being considered together with their sister manuscripts. Finally, codices with paintings by the Dresden Prayerbook Master and other artists are illustrated altogether in the plate volume. While this arrangement enables the reader to see the work of the master and his collaborators side by side, the absence of captions identifying illuminators and dates obliges the student to consult the text volume to determine who painted what and when.

These shortcomings are entirely outweighed, however, by the extraordinary strengths of Brinkmann’s study. The author establishes that the Dresden Prayerbook Master trained in the northern Netherlands, perhaps specifically in Utrecht, before migrating around 1470 to Bruges. After briefly working in the shop of the Master of Anthony of Burgundy, the artist established himself as an independent agent in Bruges. Already a distinctive and expressive painter with a special gift for rendering the character of the seasons, the Dresden Prayerbook Master, like Simon Marmion, would further distinguish himself from the majority of his contemporaries over the course of his long career by his unfailing compositional inventiveness.

The 1470s were spent illustrating both liturgical and nonliturgical manuscripts and incunabula for clients as prominent as Jean de Gros, Jean Crabbe, and Sir John Donne. Toward the end of that decade the Dresden Prayerbook Master began collaborating with colleagues outside Bruges on the illustration of luxurious Books of Hours that were probably orchestrated from and assembled in Ghent. His illustrious colleagues in this enterprise included Simon Marmion, the Master of the Older Prayerbook of Maximilian, the Master of the David Scenes in the Grimani Breviary, artists in the circle of the Master of Mary of Burgundy, and possibly Jan Provost. By bringing together the best talents in Flanders and northern France, those collaborations gave birth to the “Ghent-Bruges School” of book illumination.

In the mid-1480s the Dresden Prayerbook Master worked with the redoubtable Gerard David on the glorious Isabella Breviary in the British Library (Add. 18851). However, the instability that followed the arrest of the emperor Maximilian in Flanders in 1488 brought the project to a temporary halt and impelled the Dresden Prayerbook Master to migrate first to Tournai and then to Amiens, where local patrons eagerly sought out his services. When the artist returned to Bruges around 1495, he began collaborating with younger generations of illuminators. These included well-known figures, such as the Masters of Edward IV, James IV of Scotland, and of the Prayerbooks of Circa 1500, as well as less renowned artists like the Lübeck Bible and Wodhull-Haberton Hours Masters. Although still highly regarded, the Dresden Prayerbook Master began to lose his eyesight and contributed fewer and fewer pictures to individual manuscripts in his later years; he passed from the scene around 1520.

Brinkmann applies his exceptional analytical skills not only to the miniatures in the books of the Dresden Prayerbook Master, but also to their scripts, decorated initials, and border flora and marginalia. His writing is always lucid and frequently delightful: a sentence like " [Simon Marmion] handles matt-gold highlights with an especial delicacy, so much so that light seems often to dance lightly over the stuffs" is as much a pleasure to read—certainly in the German, I hope in my English—as the described details are to behold (. . . die Höhung mit Muschelgold handhabt er mit besonderer Zartheit, so dass das Licht oft leicht über die Gewänder zu huschen scheint, [p. 160]).

What Brinkmann has in fact produced is not just a monograph on one of the most imaginative and enchanting illuminators to work in late medieval Flanders: with its wealth of information and observations about the Dresden Prayerbook Master’s collaborators and contemporaries both familiar and unfamiliar, he has effectively written a history of Flemish book painting from the last years of duke Philip the Good of Burgundy to the ascent of emperor Charles V. His book is an invaluable and much-needed contribution that will set the standard for future studies in this still largely underexplored field.

Gregory T. Clark
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of the South