Dijon Altarpiece (1393-99)

In 1392, Melchior Broederlam certified the expenses of the sculptor Jacques de Baerze for sending two partially finished carved triptychs to the charterhouse of Champmol, near Dijon. In December these were sent to Hesdin and then on to Ypres, where the painter returned at the New Year. On 28 February 1393 Broederlam signed a contract to gild and paint the carvings and to paint scenes on the exterior of the wings.

Work was under way when Philip the Bold visited his shop a year later, but the triptychs remained unfinished until the sculptor completed his part in the spring of 1398. It was August 1399 before Broederlam could accompany them to Burgundy and supervise their installation in the monastery church. Both triptychs survive in Dijon, but only one in the Musée des Beaux-Arts has retained its exterior scenes. The painted left and right outer panels represent four biblical scenes of the Infancy of Christ: on the left, The Annunciation and The Visitation; on the right, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple and The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. In both panels, the foreground figures propel the narrative to the right before a continuous rocky landscape. Both rely on Italian models.

The first three of these scenes are drawn from the Gospel according to St Luke, and the fourth from that of St Matthew. The artist, however, has made changes in the biblical narrative, and introduced additional symbols, some of which are quite straightforward, others somewhat obscure. This symbolism, and in particular the emblematic use of flowers, has fascinated art historians, who have offered many divergent interpretations of the pictures.

The most distinctive aspect of this work is the arrangement of sacred architectural settings which occupy virtually all of two out of the four scenes. In both scenes the building, in which they are, is open onto the world outside, as if the painter were trying to show us both interior and exterior simultaneously. This apparent contradiction is a convention which Broederlam has borrowed from the paintings of the Italian Trecento, where similar buildings are to be found in the works of Giotto and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, among others.

Yet despite their openness and despite the plants and flowers that hug their bases, these buildings are not part of the landscape but stand apart from nature. This is not entirely Broederlam's fault. The general principles of central perspective were not discovered and codified until fifty years later, in Florence, through the work of Brunelleschi and Alberti respectively. In Broederlam's days, they were known only in a fragmentary form. That is why he uses a hesitant and oblique form of perspective, creating multiple horizons and vanishing points, just like his Italian contemporaries. The Dijon altarpiece even has a gold background. This convention had been used since the Byzantine period and throughout the Middle Ages to symbolize paradise, the realm of the soul, according to the theological conceptions of the time. Broederlam does not respect the convention entirely, for as well as a pair of angels and God the Father, his golden sky also has a bird flying through it. He uses the gold background to link the four scenes together, but achieves this aim at the expense of visual coherence, for such an abstract heaven does not really square with the attempt at perspectival space. The function of perspective is to define a three-dimensional world in which the visible and the real are one. Over the centuries that followed, artists would come to understand and exploit this potential in an increasingly clear manner.

Broederlam's landscape, also, is inspired by the art of the Italian Trecento. In each panel, nature is summarized as a steep rocky outcrop, with a few bushes and flowers clinging to its crevices. As such, it is wholly out of proportion with both the buildings that stand in it and the figures who are moving through it. This is the kind of landscape which is to be found in the school of Siena, and in Giotto's frescos for the Upper Church at Assisi. Since the early 14th century, Flemish artists had been in contact with their Italian counterparts, some of whose works had reached France. Out of these encounters, an international style had been created, based on the art of Italy, but which was soon equally to be found in Cologne, Prague or Dijon. It is hardly surprising that Broederlam also made use of this artistic lingua franca.