Klara H. Broekhuijsen: The Masters of the Dark Eyes. Late Medieval Manuscript Painting in Holland, Turnhout: Brepols Publishers NV 2009, ISBN 978-2-503-51510-6, 125.00 EUR
Buchcover von The Masters of the Dark Eyes
rezensiert von Marta Bigus, University of London

Although the late medieval manuscript painting from the Northern Low Countries may seem a popular topic, the number of large-scale studies on this subject published in recent years is not impressive. Therefore, Klara Broekhuijsen's book The Masters of the Dark Eyes. Late Medieval Manuscript Painting in Holland, which is an English translation of her 1997 PhD dissertation, is a welcome enrichment to the field.

The poetically sounding name Masters of the Dark Eyes refers to seven groups of illuminators active at the turn of the sixteenth century in the Northern and Southern Low Countries, as well as at the English Royal Court. The works of the groups share several stylistic features, the most conspicuous of which are dark shades around the figures' eyes. Broekhuijsen was able to identify the hands of the Masters of the Dark Eyes in miniatures, initials and border decorations of no less than 89 manuscripts and fragments, most of which are books of hours. This is one of the largest oeuvres of Netherlandish miniaturists known at present. The study under review aims at providing an insight into style and iconography of these particularly productive artists.

The book consists of four chapters and a catalogue of manuscripts, supplemented with a generous illustrations section (141 black and white illustrations, 41 colour plates) and several comprehensive indexes. The first chapter contains minute characteristics of each group of miniaturists, concentrating mainly on the style and on distinguishing of hands within the groups. Particularly useful is the concise account of the general aspects of the Masters' style at the beginning of the chapter.

The second chapter focuses on the extraordinarily elaborate decoration programmes typical of the Masters. Broekhuijsen establishes five models of narrative decoration in the fifteenth-century Dutch books of hours. The simplest one comprises only one miniature at the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin (Model 1), while in the most elaborate (Model 5) every canonical hour within the Hours of the Virgin, Hours of the Cross, Hours of the Eternal Wisdom and Hours of the Holy Spirit opens with an illustration. Whereas a vast majority of Horae produced in the fifteenth-century Northern Low Countries features Model 2 (one miniature at the opening of each important text), the books illuminated by the Masters usually contain more extensive Models 4 and 5.

This is an interesting observation, but the corpus of manuscripts from which the author derived the five models could have been introduced in a more comprehensive manner. The reader does not know how many manuscripts Broekhuijsen has included in her corpus unless he or she adds the numbers presented in the table at the end of chapter 2. Secondly, the databases that the author consulted in order to compile her corpus are either outdated (plates in Byvanck and Hoogewerff date from 1922-25) or unpublished (database compiled by James H. Marrow and the Byvanck-database of the Royal Library in The Hague). [1] It would have been useful to give some information on the scope of those databases, their content and general aim. This would have helped the reader to gain a better idea of how the author came about with some 220 fifteenth-century illuminated books of hours from which she derived her models, and from which the manuscripts decorated by the Masters vary so greatly.

The fact that the Masters of the Dark Eyes participated in the production of books with very rich illustration cycles poses yet another important question. Although such extensive programmes imply the commissions by resourceful clients, only very few books of hours illuminated or co-illuminated by the Masters contain contemporary signs of ownership or any other form of customisation (the English Group, within which all books and documents have been made on commission is a noteworthy exception). Bearing in mind the impressive number (39) of books of hours illuminated by the Masters, is it possible that those sumptuous manuscripts were in fact made on spec? Unfortunately, this significant matter remains unaddressed.

The iconographic sources from which the Masters derived their compositions, and which are explored in chapter 3, do not seem to be significantly different from those used by other contemporary miniaturists. As many illuminators did, they looked at prints, panel paintings and devotional literature. Although Broekhuijsen emphasises a unique character of several representations, her survey proves that the Masters were followers of the iconographic tradition rather than great innovators.

In the fourth and final chapter, the author revises the dating and the localisation of the manuscripts. Regrettably, the art-historical research did not bring any information that would lead to an adjustment of the dating and localisation. A dialectological analysis of the texts from the vernacular manuscripts could have provided some significant data regarding the localisation, but the author seems to have chosen to look only at the art-historical aspects.

An obvious advantage of this study is that it offers a precise description of style and iconography of the Masters of the Dark Eyes. The author gives a thorough account of various sources from which they derived their compositions and points out numerous cases in which they creatively enriched popular models. The rich visual material included in this publication gives the reader a good impression of the oeuvre of the Masters. Furthermore, the case of the Masters excellently demonstrates that one style of painting can gain a considerable popularity in various regions. Klara Broekhuijsen's book contributes significantly to our knowledge of art-historical aspects of late medieval manuscript painting in the Low Countries.

Despite its value, this study reveals several drawbacks of an approach to illuminated manuscripts within which the miniatures are studied out of material context of codices. More attention to the codicological and palaeographical aspects, such as ruling, script, quire structure etc., could have provided useful information on the role of the Masters in the process of the book production. Did they work with a select group of scribes? We know that the Masters made both miniatures on loose leaves and entire cycles within the quires. Did they, thus, have loose miniatures on stock and worked on entire cycles for special commissions? We also know that they occasionally cooperated with other artists. What was the nature of these collaborations? The author must have had much codicological evidence at her disposal (some data are included in the catalogue) which could have enabled her to answer those questions and shed even more light on the activities of the Masters. By choosing the traditional disciplinary approach, Broekhuijsen presents only a fragmentary view on their work. Moreover, she positions her research outside of the current paradigm within manuscript studies in the Low Countries.

The structure of the book contains some weaker points, too. The volume would have profited from an introductory section on manuscript illumination in the Netherlands, as well as from a brief explanation of concepts of 'masters' and 'workshops' in the context of medieval book production. Furthermore, the individual chapters contain numerous observations, but they lack clearly stated conclusions. Likewise, there is no final paragraph summarising the findings of the whole study. Quite bizarrely, some closing remarks are placed after the third, i.e. one but last, chapter. As to technical aspects, it seems rather strange that all colour plates are repetitions of miniatures reproduced in black and white just a few pages earlier. It would have been wiser, perhaps, to include photos of other manuscripts, preferably those from private collections, instead. Finally, it is very regretful that the author and the publisher did not take enough care to correct the English in this publication. As a result, many linguistic flaws make some parts of the book difficult to understand.

To sum up, the value of this study lays in its thorough account on style and iconography of an important group of illuminators. Although it does not engage in the current discussion on urban commercial book production in the Low Countries, it does give a good basis for further book-historical, as well as art-historical studies. Matters touched on in this publication that certainly deserve further investigation are, among others, the activities of the English Group at the court of Henry VII and/or Henry VIII of England and the participation of the Masters in the international commercial book production.


[1] A.W. Byvanck / G.J. Hoogewerff: Noord-Nederlandsche miniaturen in handschriften der 14e , 15e en 16e eeuwen, 3 vols. 's-Gravenhage 1922-1925.

Marta Bigus

zurück zu KUNSTFORM 13 (2012), Nr. 1

Empfohlene Zitierweise:

Marta Bigus: Rezension von: Klara H. Broekhuijsen: The Masters of the Dark Eyes. Late Medieval Manuscript Painting in Holland, Turnhout: Brepols Publishers NV 2009
in KUNSTFORM 13 (2012), Nr. 1,

Rezension von:

Marta Bigus
University of London

Redaktionelle Betreuung:

Dagmar Hirschfelder