"Sterility of the imagination lies at the heart of Huizinga's conception of the waning Middle Ages".

(F. Haskell. History and It Images, (Yale, 1993) p.487).

A Look At Johan Huizinga's

'The Waning of the Middle Ages' (1924)

by Raichel  Le Goff 

This statement is a critical observation by an Art Historian who has studied Huizinga's book The Waning of the Middle Ages, which is not so much about art as it is about the cultural history of an era. The phrase "sterility of the imagination" is not to be found in Huizinga, rather he comes up with a thousand different expressions to convey the same notion. He says that in Flemish art and literature, "imagination drew from mundane reality" (p.251) and that "when the whole has to be created by the unaided imagination, the art of the period cannot avoid the ridiculous." (eg. illuminated illustrations for Epitre d'Othea a Hector, a mythological fancy of the poet Christine de Pisan).

Francis Haskell's synopsis of the entire work implies that the culture of the late Middle Ages was viewed by Huizinga as not being very innovative in the same sense we generally view the culture of late 15th century Italy. "Sterility of the imagination" is pronounced like a clinical diagnosis to recapitulate Huizinga's argument that rather than Northern European culture being the catalyst for the Southern Renaissance, it was in fact a barren field that did not give birth but rather died out, hence the use of the word waning in the title which implies a slow death.

To infer a much admired culture was imaginatively sterile, is a harsh criticism and Huizinga goes to great lengths to back up his controversial viewpoint by looking at the products of Northern culture as being directly inspired by everyday experience in the late Middle Ages as opposed to products of unencumbered and fertile imaginations.

Although Huizinga's book is promoted as one that primarily examines the work of the brothers Van Eyck, there is actually very little content discussing individual works of art. The first ten chapters deal with the actions of princes and statesmen, the chivalry of knights, and the outpourings of theologians, poets and chroniclers of the time. The period covered is roughly 1350 to 1480 (p. 238) and the action occurs mainly in and around the Burgundian court of Flanders. It must also be stressed that there is just as much discussion, if not more, of literary works of the period and two chapters are devoted to a paragone between verbal and plastic expression. (21 & 22). The real crux of the argument is held off until the penultimate chapter which is seemingly where Haskell found the material from which he drew his own conclusion. It is here that Huizinga extracts himself from the long series of elaborate case studies to put forward the solid allegations of "Imagination, both literary and artistic, had been led into a blind alley by allegory." (p. 303) and "more is required than the direct and accurate vision of reality". (p. 301). Earlier on, he had called upon the support of Michelangelo, who famously criticized Flemish art for its lack of imagination saying "this art is without power and without distinction; it aims at rendering minutely many things at the same time, of which a single one would have sufficed to call forth a man's whole application." (H.p.254). In his conclusion, Huizinga once again declares there is justice in Michelangelo's severe words for it is just this meticulous realism that really disturbs him, a debilitating feature of Flemish art and literature that he believed the Renaissance eliminated with a change to breadth and simplicity.

Van Eyck was for Huizinga, an artist whose works were handicapped by "the scrupulous realism, the aspiration to give an exact rendering of every natural detail". For if art is devoid of imaginative input, what then, can it be based on? If not conceived through the imagination, it is surely designed to imitate reality. Such a feature of Van Eyck's work represented for Huizinga the waning, or demise of an outdated style of painting, not something original that heralded the start of something new. He chose the brothers Van Eyck as a target through which to channel his arguments toward the end of his book as he judged them to be the most eminent representatives of the art of the epoch. For him, the art of the Van Eyck's and their followers, however splendid and refined, is backward-looking and a reflection of an entire culture in decline. He dwells on the Van Eyck's absence of true harmony and painstaking attention to detail that characterize their works. The two main examples he refers to are Jan van Eyck's Madonna of the chancellor Rolin (Louvre) and the Annunciation (Hermitage) by the same artist. Of the first he asks, "are not unity and harmony lost in this aggregation of details, as Michelangelo affirmed of Flemish art in general?" (p. 266) but of the Annunciation, he praises it for being more uniform in its accumulation of details so that overall equilibrium is not sacrificed.

Part of the reason Huizinga saw Flemish art as being lacking in imagination was because he believed that all art of the period was more or less 'applied art'. The function of art was not to serve beauty or to simply please the eye, but art was always subservient to some more practical use. Huizinga argues that portraits were owned as souvenirs or heirlooms but not collected as individual masterpieces, religious paintings such as Van Eyck's triptych of the Adoration of the Lamb opened only at high festivals was designed to intensify worship, historical subjects adorned public halls and law courts and sculpture was primarily used in the weighty domain of tombs. To be fair, Huizinga points out that most plastic art which survives from the 15th century is ecclesiastical and that we would have had more insight into the artist's ability to fertilize our imaginations had more profane art survived. This is a recurring lament of his. He much prefers the portraits of Van Eyck to his religious paintings, and mentions the Arnolfini Double Portrait as being a case where the painter was released from the conventions of portraying the majesty of divine beings. It leads him to imagine at his own folly, that this image gives us a glimpse of "a Jan van Eyck of the simple heart, a dreamer." p. 247

By his own admission, Huizinga's judgement on the Flemish artists is made without having seen the lost bathing and hunting scenes of Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden nor such flights of fancy as the ornamental ships which nobles paid painters great sums to decorate in gold and azure. If these works were commissioned purely for their aesthetic value, and it seems they were, then it would make problematic Huizinga's theory that art "was not yet conceived of mere beauty" (p.234). He has based his judgement on the evidence he viewed firsthand, beginning with the important exhibition of what were called the 'Flemish Primitives' (Les Primitifs Flamands et l'Art ancien) that took place in Bruges in 1902 . The bulk of this evidence is religious art which it could be argued, was obliged in the fifteenth century to follow approved conventions of iconography and form that would restrict the imaginative input of an artist. Fuelling Huzinga's tendency to see the art of the epoch as simply imitative of the material world, is his insistence that art was dominated by an uncontrollable urge to copy down (quote) "the overcrowding of the mind with figures and forms systematically arranged". His theory being that if nothing is left without form, without figures, without ornament in Flemish art, then there is nothing left for the imagination to work upon, neither in the creator nor in the viewer.

As an example, Huizinga points to sculpture and the tabernacle of Dijon where the reliefs are "complicated and overloaded" (p.238) and also to tapestries where he finds the same craving for excessive ornamentation. He discusses the importance of festivals in the society of that time and suggests that so much energy and outrageous fancy went into the making of these lavish events that at the other extreme, painting was expected to reflect a more sobre aspect of life. Art was rare, by its very nature almost 'sacred' in context, but festivals were a form of collective rejoicing where the imagination paraded unreigned. As literary, musical and artistic enjoyment was closely connected to these festivals, they provided an outlet for creative fantasy. Why it was not channelled into plastic art, into the paintings of the Flemish masters, is a question that Huizinga attempts to answer. He says that the distance separating the two extreme forms of art of the fifteenth century cannot be exaggerated. Yet even though a similar dichotomy in the intellectual and moral life of the fifteenth century existed where on the one hand, you had the civilization of the court, the nobility, and the rich middle classes and on the other hand, the sobriety of the 'devotio moderna' and life as an imitation of Christ, Huizinga makes clear that the art of the great Masters belonged to the former and not the latter. Of devout circles, he says "They would probably have regarded the altar-piece of the Lamb as a mere work of pride." (p. 248)

The same patrons that enjoyed the most gargantuan of feasts and fetes were the same men that commissioned works of art from the brothers van Eyck and van der Weyden. Hence, in religious painting the extremes of mysticism and of gross materialism meet. Van Eyck's angels look demure and pious but Huzinga complains that they are draped in ponderous and stiff brocades, glittering with gold and precious stones.

Huizinga's argument is riddled with highly subjective, asymmetric comments. "Burgundo-French culture of the expiring Middle Ages tends to oust beauty by magnificence." (p.237) he writes suggesting that people then prized splendour and pomp over this intangible thing he calls beauty. Or "in their simplicity they could enjoy the bizarre as if it were beauty." (p. 246) He makes no secret of admiring Italian art and literature. Of poets Molinet and Meschinot he writes,

"Products like these would seem to betray mere decadence and senile decay. Thinking of Italian literature of the same period, the fresh and lovely poetry of the quattrocento, we may perhaps wonder how the form and spirit of the Renaissance can still seem so remote from the regions on this side of the Alps." (p. 306).


The Italian Renaissance, what he calls the "great renewal" (p.317) was for Huizinga, marked essentially by pure Latinity. Here the Italians had an advantage over the Flemish in grasping the concepts of humanistic thought he maintains, due to their Latin-based native tongue. Huizinga implies that whereas the Italians handled antiquity as something new and exciting to explore, the Flemish interpreted antiquity according to the truly medieval principles of scholastic theology and chivalry, asceticism and courtesy. The fifteenth century in France and the Netherlands remained medieval at heart and the Gothic principle prevailed in the arts.

To speak of the Flemish as "the servants of an expiring mode of thought" (p.263) in this context, as Huizinga does, is to let subjective value-judgement enter the question. Lay and indeed clerical piety at this time expressed a desire for familiarity with the saints and with the human drama and tragedy of the Christian story that was unprecedented in the Middle Ages. Religious sensibility was now conditioned by the cult of the Virgin, by the collections of saints' lives in the Golden Legend, by mystery or miracle plays, and by an art of domestic realism that was both a sympton and a cause of changes in outlook. The highly detailed panel-painting of the Van Eycks and other northern artists perfectly expressed the sentiments of their noble and bourgeois patrons. Representational realism and religious symbolism merged, and the theory that naturalism in art utterly betrayed a lack of imagination is untenable. Art of this quality reinforced and illustrated doctrinal truths and stimulated devotional practices. We may with some confidence reject Huizinga's idea that familiarity with the sacred led inevitably to a sterile art.

Haskell himself, who seems to be a great admirer of Huizinga, neatly avoids commitment to such a remark as I have just made by quoting lines from an essay that Huizinga wrote,

"the vision of an epoch resulting from the contemplation of works of art is always incomplete, always too favourable, and therefore fallacious". (Haskell, p. 494)

copyright © Raichel Le Goff
ISBN 960-85312-0-9
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