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What's in a name...Louvain Late Gothic Sculpture re-examined

Status questionis

In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries Leuven was a regional production centre of sculpture that followed the trends being set in Brussels. The Leuven sculptors had a wide and varied clientele base and received commissions from far beyond the city walls. However, they were not organized in a corporation of their own and therefore did not apply a system of trade marks to allow quality control, like it was the case, for example, in Brussels, Antwerp and Mechelen. The result is that in the archives many sculptors are known by name, but they can hardly ever be linked to a body of work. Conversely, many remaining sculptures cannot be attributed to a specific sculptor.

In the 1960s a group of researchers in Leuven, including Jan Crab, Maurits Smeyers and Jan Karel Steppe, classified all remaining late Gothic Leuven sculptures in a number of groups of 'masters' or workshops. They did so by applying some stylistic criteria and by recognizing several different masterly hands. More often than not, it also meant they grouped sculptures that showed a certain iconographic unity. When the name of the sculptor was unknown, they gave these groups an anonymous ‘emergency name’, e.g. the Master of the Crucified Christ Figures or the Master of St. Barbara of Pellenberg.

Since then, the art historical research on the medieval sculpture from Leuven has barely progressed. (see Sources - infra)


Questioning and research aim

Can we better define and organize the Leuven sculpture production of the late Middle Ages based on a critical and objective multidisciplinary analysis?

The purpose of this doctoral research is to unravel the current, tangled classification of the late Gothic sculpture by reshuffling the cards and to propose a regrouping.

The classification of anonymous workshops, and the works attributed to them can be redefined by re-examining archival sources, by stylistic comparison and a physical examination of the sculptures with current scientific research techniques. Moreover the Leuven sculpture production needs to be looked at from a wider perspective. Can the original function or devotional context in which these works were carved shed more light on them? Can we even continue to use the concepts ‘Leuven style' and 'the Leuven Late Gothic carving centre’ at all? Were the Leuven sculptors not too heavily influenced by developments in Brussels at the time? What was the real relation of Leuven late Gothic sculpture to the Brussels production, from a socio-economical point of view? After all, the work of the Master of Christ on the Cold Stone and the Master of the Crucified Christ Figures, to name but two examples, shows clear similarities with Jan Borman's oeuvre. And it is known that Brussels artists came to Leuven to work on the city hall, for instance.

In addition, some mistakes crept into the old publications. For example, in one publication the same sculpture was attributed both to the 'known' Bartel Van Kessel and to the anonymous Master of St. Matthew of Meensel. In addition, the division into fictional workshops is largely based on the assumption that a sculptor or workshop limited itself to producing only one or a few iconographic themes. This position now seems untenable. An artist / workshop could indeed excel in depicting various iconographical or functional types.

Finally, Crab and Co. already admitted themselves that some masters, such as the Master of the Crucified Christ Figures, are simply fictitious workshops that remained active over a long period of time. This seems to us a misleading way of cataloguing because the sculptures are seemingly being attributed to a (non-existent) master although they are most likely the work of three or four different sculptors in different periods. It would be far more interesting to investigate how and why certain 15th century compositional themes seemed to remain popular in the Louvain area, well into the 16th century, rather than forcefully putting a name to them.


It is not the aim of this PhD to simply criticize or diminish the accomplishments of past scholars, but rather take their research a necessary step further. By building on these foundations and guiding the research into the 21st century it should be possible to bring it out of the vacuum-like state it has been in for the past 40 years.

The almost purely object-oriented and subjective stylistic approach of the past needs to be objectified. This PhD will therefore combine a number of research methods and offer a multidisciplinary approach. On the one hand socio-economical and contextual research (historical, devotional, functional) will be undertaken. In addition to this, of course, stylistic and archival research will be conducted in this study. On the other hand the aim is to also research the Leuven sculptures from a technical and scientific point of view.

The scientific research techniques and imaging methods to physically examine sculptures have changed significantly and improved since the 1960s: herein lies a net gain of this PhD proposal.

For example, the polychrome and pigments (XRF, stratigraphy, ...), the wooden bodies (dendro, C14, ...), the possible marks - regardless of corporational marks (tool marks, benchmarks, workshop marks, merchant marks...), and the construction techniques of the objects (scanning / x-ray) can be investigated.

Through this combined and multidisciplinary approach, we want to establish a new theoretical stratification of image production in Leuven. Some case-studies will be analysed more in depth on the basis of the general questioning. This will enable us to draw some conclusions.


Museological and curatorial approach

Core corpus for this doctoral research is the collection of M - Museum Leuven. This ensemble is representative because work by several of the anonymous and known masters is present within this collection. However, the investigation will not be limited to this museum but also involve relevant pieces from other locations (such as churches in the area) or collections.

The museum also provides a concrete value for the investigation. M’s primary research focus in the coming years will be on the medieval sculpture collection. This means that access to scientific research collaborations and funds can be established more easily.

By setting up dossier exhibitions within this subject a curatorial methodology can be applied. Objects can be placed literally next to each other and this offers tremendous opportunities for the research. (cfr. infra)


It is not the primary mission or objective of this investigation to assign names to anonymous workshops, because too little is known about the Leuven sculpture (no trademark system, no organized corporation ...) But is safe to say that the existing groups and oeuvres linked to masters will be reshuffled extensively. For this purpose, all known collections are to be scanned. However, the arguments for attribution to Leuven will initially only be verified in case studies. An up-to-date catalogue of all Leuven-attributed Late Gothic sculpture will be an interesting annex of the research.

Ideally, the cases will only be finalized after conducting a preliminary investigation into the possibilities for further research into sources, possibilities for technical examination of the pieces (and cost thereof) etc.
It is certain that some of these cases will lead to dossier exhibitions or collection presentations within the new presentation concept of the M-collection (from May 2017 onwards)


Possible cases:

• Hendrik Roesen (one of the few Leuven sculptors known by name and showing huge influences of Borman / Brussels and also clear stylistic links with the Master of Saint-Barbara of Pellenberg and Bartel van Kessel)

• Master of the Crucified Christ Figures

• Master of Christ on the Cold Stone

• Master of the Madonna of Piétrebais


Date:9 Sep 2016  →  9 Sep 2020
Keywords:sculpture, late gothic, medieval art
Disciplines:History, Art studies and sciences
Project type:PhD project