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Shirley Neilsen Blum, The New Art of the Fifteenth Century. Faith and Art in Florence and the Netherlands (Abbeville Press, 2015). ISBN: 978-0-7892-1192-7 (h/bk), 314 pp., 182 col. ills. and 18 drawings, $85.00.

Reviewed by Anne Kirkham

[1] The glossy front cover of The New Art of the Fifteenth Century. Faith and Art in Florence and the Netherlands The New Art of the Fifteenth Century Coverjuxtaposes Fra Angelico’s Gabriel from the Convent of San Marco in Florence with Robert Campin’s Virgin from the Mérode Triptych made for the Engelbrecht family in Mechelen. By re-sizing the large fresco and small domestic altarpiece, the resulting image announces the interest of both Northern and Southern artists in closely observed details and realistic representations of space that Shirley Neilsen Blum calls attention to throughout her book. In this composite picture a humanized angel, ‘wings thrusting through the recently disturbed air’, under a colonnade opening onto a simple garden, bows to a woman, absorbed in her book, within a well-appointed ‘ordinary middle-class Flemish home’.

[2] Blum’s vivid writing demonstrates her passion for the works she discusses. Her visually attentive descriptions encourage the reader to engage closely with the many artworks and details reproduced in this generously and splendidly illustrated book. Moreover, the book provides careful explanation of elements in the works reliant on knowledge of the Bible and its interpretation in medieval Christianity, as well as on the practices of Christianity in the late middle ages ranging from the role of religious orders to personal piety, from the ritual of Mass to participation in mystery plays.

[3] Enthusiasts for a new ‘take’ on the New Art of the Fifteenth Century may be a little underwhelmed. Blum’s focus on realism and visual effects, and her approaches to symbolic interpretation and patronage cover familiar ground. Her interest in relating rather than, as previously, relativizing Northern (here Netherlandish) and Southern (here Florentine) art in the fifteenth century was well-established at the turn of the twenty-first century. New approaches to the ‘new art’ of the fifteenth century, for example based around emotion or multi-sensory experience, are increasingly available, but not here (although Blum occasionally anticipates new interests, for example she highlights the painting of ‘touch’ and its significance in connection with Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition). Some explanation is offered in the preface where Blum states that her manuscript was completed in 2004 and revised only to incorporate Susie Nash’s work (2005–08) on Claus Sluter’s Well of Moses. What is unexplained in the preface is why the author and publisher have ventured to publish the work more than a decade later. The inside fly-leaf argues for an audience of general readers and students and, for the most part, this argument stands up, but with certain reservations.

[4] Tucked away in the preface, rather than opened up in the introduction, is the justification that the book’s chapters on the ‘greatest hits’ of fifteenth-century Florence and Flanders provide ‘thorough analysis of how formal invention was joined to religious content’. This is a fair summary of what the chapters do, but it is a shame that no critical comment on the privileging of canonical artistic centres and artworks was incorporated into a revised introduction, given the delay in publication. Instead, the introduction offers some background to: perspective; the Church; Feast Days; popular religious drama and literature; lay patronage; and the depiction of God in man’s image that are all necessary to any reader new to the art under discussion.

[5] Following the introduction are four chapters focused on works that Blum interrogates to demonstrate what she terms, ‘the emergence of the new art’. The first chapter considers Sluter’s sculptures at the Charterhouse of Champmol, Dijon and Donatello’s sculptures for both the Cathedral and Orsanmichele in Florence. Sluter’s sculptures (c. 1391–1404) are the earliest works in the book and the chapter is the only chapter not focused on wall or panel paintings. Making reference to well-lit photographs Blum demonstrates the theatrical qualities of the innovative statues that are lauded, but then laid aside as her ‘discussion of sculpture is confined to these early years, when sculptors in both regions made significant discoveries that were later adopted by painters’. This allows for a lot of attention to painting.

[6] Masaccio’s Trinity on the wall of Santa Maria Novella, Florence and Jan van Eyck’s Rolin Madonna panel are compared in chapter two. This establishes points of connection in relation to patronage, liturgy and the representation of architecture in space for those that may approach these paintings – and others to be discussed – as apparently different artworks. Chapter three offers a clear account of the fresco programme of the Brancacci Chapel, Florence to which Masaccio was a major contributor. In chapter four Blum considers The Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers, but, as a reminder to the reader that parts of her study are quite dated, she notes that her discussion of the work owes much to the scholarship of Dhanens (1973 and 1980), Panofsky (1953) and Philip (1971). Recent analyses of the Brancacci Chapel (Nicholas A. Eckstein) and The Ghent Altarpiece (Stephan Kemperdick and Johannes Roessler) were published in 2014.

[7] Blum argues that Jan van Eyck and Masaccio established radical styles serving Christian tradition that persisted in fifteenth-century painting. Accordingly she sets aside the four chapters of the second part of the book to focus thematically on scenes from the early life (Annunciation, Adoration of the Shepherds, Adoration of the Magi) and death of Christ (Passion scenes) that both dominated the Church’s liturgical year and were ‘a focus of late medieval spirituality’. These chapters explain the significance in the late middle ages of these episodes in Christ’s history and how that significance was translated in paint. Chapter six (Adoration of the Shepherds) is perhaps the most satisfying read as it is crafted as a sustained essay on two works, both for Florentine bankers, The Portinari Altarpiece by the Ghent artist, Hugo van der Goes, and The Sassetti Altarpiece by the Florentine, Domenico del Ghirlandaio. These works, respectively from the 1470s and 1480s, are also the only major representative works from later in the fifteenth century.

[8] Any reader will delight in the book’s images that include an enfolded Ghent Altarpiece and many exquisite close-ups, for example of Benozzo Gozzoli’s Journey of The Magi frescoes in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence. The book, by its own admission, pre-dates new approaches to fifteenth-century religious art, but the sub-title of the book, Faith and Art in Florence and the Netherlands, is well served by the text and will be valued, especially by newer audiences of this art, for its explanations of fifteenth-century Christian thought and practice of which the art forms part.

The University of Manchester, May 2016