by Roderick Conway Morris

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St. Peter's Church, Leuven
The Last Supper by Dieric Bouts, 1464-68

Painter to the Town of Leuven

By Roderick Conway Morris
LEUVEN 31 October 2023


Dieric Bouts spent his entire known career in Leuven. The great collegiate Church of St. Peter's, remarkable for its monumental simplicity in striking contrast to the gothic extravaganza of the Town Hall, with which it shares the city's central square, is still home to the artist's triptychs of 'The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus with SS. Jerome and Bernard' (1460-64) and 'The Last Supper' from 1464-48.

Most of Bouts's other works are now scattered among numerous collections on both sides of the Atlantic (the National Gallery in London has eight autograph and workshop pieces). The artist's St. Peter's triptychs survived the appalling devastation visited on the city by the Germans in the early days of the First War, resulting in the burning in 1914 of Leuven's University Library, with the loss of 300,000 books and a thousand manuscripts. Although the side panels of 'The Last Supper' were at one point sold off, passed though various collections, were returned from Germany as reparations after the Treaty of Versailles, and were looted by the Nazis, they were finally repatriated in 1945.

Twenty-five years after the last Dieric Bouts retrospective, staged in St. Peter's, the artist is now the subject of a major exhibition at M Leuven, curated by Peter Carpreau, which brings together, in the largest gathering of his work ever, some 25 autograph and workshop pieces and 40 other associated works. Among the loans are the 'Triptych of the Descent from the Cross' from the Capilla Grande in Granada, which is leaving Spain for the first time since 1505.

Tradition had it that Bouts originally came from Haarlem, but there is no documentary evidence for this. Most scholars now concur that he was born in around 1415-20, would have been apprenticed in the 1430s and, after his journeyman years, would have set up his studio in Leuven during the 1440s. His oldest dated painting, 'Portrait of a Man (Jan van Winckele?)', on loan from the National Gallery in London, is from 1462. Stylistic evidence suggests that Bouts may have spent time in the studio of Jan Van Eyck (c. 1390-1440-41) in Bruges and in that of Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464), who was appointed 'Painter to the Town of Brussels' in around 1435. Bouts also displays signs of contact with the Bruges painter Petrus Christus (1410/20-1475/6), who may well have been a close contemporary. While in some respects Bouts at first achieved a kind of synthesis of the styles of Van Eyck and Van der Weyden, as the exhibition and catalogue essays reveal, Bouts became an influential innovator, both in manner and content.

When Bouts arrived in Leuven its university, founded in 1425, was only some twenty years old. Lier and Brussels had already decided against hosting such an institution, the former because its main priority was its sheep market and the latter on account of the burghers of Brussels' fears that the students 'would violate their daughters'.

Leuven's University's scholarly influence is apparent in Bouts's work. The new cult of Devotio Moderna, which focused on the figure of Christ and encouraged personal meditation as a spiritual exercise, was eagerly embraced in academic circles and evidently stimulated Bouts's production of new types of images for private devotion. Notable among these was his 'Christ Crowned with Thorns', which became extremely popular and was still being reproduced in Spain well into the 17th century.

The cultivation of personal mysticism may also have been a factor in the development of the atmosphere of stillness and the distinctive detached and remote air of the artist's figures in larger paintings. In the case of 'The Last Supper', the contract specified that the composition should be supervised by two named professors of Theology from the University.

The Byzantine 'Panagia Eleousa' (Virgin of Tenderness) became known north of the Alps via versions from Italy. It was allegedly painted from life by St. Luke, but while Flemish painters recognized the authenticity of the original likeness, they did not rate the Evangelist as painter and felt no compunction about producing stylistically up-dated versions. Rogier van der Weyden was the first to depict 'St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child' but Bouts modified the scene in telling ways. Unlike Van der Wyden, he makes the sketch that Luke is working on with a double-ended metalpoint stylus clearly discernible and, in the partial view of the side-room, replaces the conventional open book on a lectern with a vignette of an easel with a half-finished panel, palette, brushes and colours in mussel shells. The composition is represented here by a well-executed Bouts workshop version on loan from Barnard Castle, Co. Durham.

Flemish paintings were much in demand in Italy and a Bouts altarpiece was certainly in Venice by the early 15th century. 'He excelled at the depiction of landscape,' the Leuven professor Johannes Molanus wrote of Bouts, and in a fascinating essay in the catalogue Till-Holger Borchert persuasively identifies the powerful influence of the artist's landscapes on Giovanni Bellini and Mantegna. Small, emotive devotional pictures too, such as weeping Madonnas and 'Christ Crowned with Thorns', by Bouts and other Flemish artists, were sought after all over Italy. The Roman poet Vittoria Colonna observed to Michelangelo that 'Flemish painting seems to me more devout than that in the Italian manner', but he ridiculed such productions as 'art for old women'.

Till-Holger Borchert demonstrated in his landmark exhibition, 'Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution', in Ghent in 2020, that the Bruges master clearly had knowledge of measured perspective and works on optics by the likes of Alhazen. As the current show illustrates, both Petrus Christus and Bouts were aware of this Italian invention, but did not apply it consistently. Bouts certainly seems to have had a firmer grasp of the technique. He used it, for example, to great effect in 'The Last Supper', where the vanishing point is located in the figure of Christ raising the host, thus concentrating our attention on that crucial Biblical moment that the Brotherhood of the Holy Sacrament, who commissioned the work, was founded to celebrate.

That Bouts gave his son Albrecht a thorough training is evidenced by the high-quality pieces now attributed to him. Albrecht greatly extended the influence of the enterprise beyond his father's death in 1475. For it was only with the son's demise in 1549 that the century-long activity of this famous Leuven studio came to a close.

Dieric Bouts: Creator of Images; M Leuven, Leuven; 20 October - 4 January 2024

Dieric Bouts: Creator of Images, Peter Carpreau, ed.

Hannibal/M Leuven, 2023

First published: British Art Journal (volume XXIV, no. 2, Autumn 2023)

First published: British Art Journal

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024