WEYDEN, Rogier van der
(b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles)

Chroniques de Hainaut

Manuscript (Ms. 9242-44, 3 volumes), 440 x 312 mm
Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique, Brussels

This manuscript contains the history of the duchy of Hainaut (in German Hennegau). Hainaut is a province of Wallonia, one of the three regions of present-day Belgium. Its numerous miniatures, borders and decorated initials were produced in the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden. The title miniature to the first volume (folio 1r) is the work of Rogier himself. In this picture, the book is presented to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy.

Although Duke Philip the Good often visited Brussels, there is no record of his ever having ordered a religious painting from Rogier van der Weyden. On the other hand, he did commission two portraits of himself from the artist. The originals are not extant, but have come down to us in many copies, so that they must in a certain sense have been official portraits of the duke. However, the original of one work done for Philip by Rogier's own hand is extant; surprisingly, this is not a panel painting but a miniature. It adorns the first page of the first volume of a French translation of the Hainaut Chronicle, one of three extremely magnificent historical works commissioned by the duke in 1446 with a view to legitimising his claims to power and territory. Rogier's miniature was probably painted at the beginning of 1448, when the text had been written out by scribes.

It was not unusual for 15th-century panel painters to turn to book illumination at times, and although there is no documentary evidence that Rogier himself painted this miniature, its style admits little doubt of his authorship. In contrast to older traditions, and unlike the other illustrations in the chronicle, its concept is entirely that of a panel painting. Light and shade and material reality are depicted as convincingly as in a large painting, and the faces of the main figures, in spite of their small size, are outstandingly good portraits and very typical of Rogier's work. There are hardly any other genuine portraits in illuminated books as a whole. Chancellor Nicolas Rolin, for instance, is known to us from panel paintings by Jan van Eyck (Louvre, Paris) and by Rogier (Musée Hôtel-Dieu, Beaune); he is easily recognizable as the blue-robed man in the scene of the presentation of the book, and Bishop Chevrot, beside him, can also be easily identified.

At the same time, the miniature provides an eloquent pictorial record of Philip's court, or rather of Philip's idea of himself and his court. The Duke himself is at the centre, the embodiment of aristocratic elegance and authority, surrounded by faithful advisers and with his son and heir Charles, still a child. Members of the nobility, all of them knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece, stand at a suitable distance from him. The miniature commissioned from Rogier, like the chronicle itself, had a strongly political dimension. Perhaps the depiction of the figures here as genuine portraits was required for the duke's self image, also expressed in Rogier's two pictures of Philip on his own. The same portrait sketch is obviously the basis for both his portrait in the miniature and at least the slightly earlier of the other two portraits, the one in which Philip's head is covered, and it may have been a factor influencing the choice of Rogier to paint the dedicatory picture for the manuscript.

The elegant clothing of the gentlemen in the miniature also reflects the latest Burgundian fashions of just after 1445. Coats had become shorter and shorter as time went on, and now end just above the knee; sleeves are cut straight, and the tops of the shoulders are padded.