review

Bernard van Orley: Wool, gold, and silk

Onze score

A major painter who represents the link between the Gothic era and the Renaissance in Brussels, Bernard van Orley is little known to the general public. This first retrospective in the city where he lived and worked restores glory to “Bernardi Bruxellensi Pictori”.

Bernard van Orley was official painter to Margaret of Austria and then to Mary of Hungary at the imperial court in Brussels in the sixteenth century. His artistic output cannot be separated from the momentum in the city during the reign of Charles the Fifth and his cosmopolitan court, when the capital of the Southern Netherlands was the tapestry centre of the world.

The exhibition at Bozar traces the Brussels painter’s whole evolution, from his earliest religious commissions to his unfinished stained-glass windows for the collegiate church of St Michael and St Gudula. Shaped by traditions developed by the Flemish Primitives, his art began to be influenced by the Northern and Southern Renaissance once he discovered Albrecht Dürer and prints by Italian artists which were circulating in Brussels. The exhibition features paintings, altarpieces, portraits, a few drawings, and some huge tapestries.

1651 Brnard van orley Saint Martin adorant la Vierge a l enfant

In many ways, the religious paintings seem inscrutable because so many of the references are lost on us. It is nonetheless fascinating to lose yourself in the details of the architecture, the expressions, and the bizarre pets that make up this faraway world. The tapestries are on another scale altogether. These arts d’apparat, as they were called at the time, of which Bernard van Orley was the master, were the height of extravagance and refinement.

They have lost their lustre and brilliance over time and, due to their size, are often difficult to exhibit, but it would be a shame to ignore those pieces that have survived until now. The Battle of Pavia and The Hunts of Charles V are among the Brussels master’s greatest works. They are two series of tapestries, the first made up of seven pieces, and the second made up of twelve. More than four meters tall and nearly eight metres long, they are really impressive. Genuine woven paintings, you can admire them from a distance to appreciate their majesty and the movement of the compositions, and from up close to make out the richness of the threads of silk, the intertwined gold and silver, the detail, and the precision of the lines.

Near the sumptuous tapestries, you can delve into the superb preparatory drawings or reference drawings, which are done in either brown wash or in colour. To extend the experience, Brussels Planning and Heritage also had the great idea of producing a short guide with walks that retrace Bernard van Orley’s sixteenth-century Brussels.

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