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Art and visual culture: medieval to modern
Art and visual culture: medieval to modern

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Reputation and skill

Beauneveu’s connections with the court of France, which arguably took the cultural lead in fourteenth-century Europe, can have done his reputation no harm. It remains uncertain whether his Venetian patron desired a Beauneveu-style statue for the reflected prestige value of the French court or of Beauneveu himself, as sculptor at no less than three different courts, or for its artistic qualities first and foremost (see Nuttall, 2012). The possibilities are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is worth stating, however, that for a high-status, courtly work of art this is not an extravagantly expensive sculpture, despite its size. The statue is made out of ordinary stone, not a particularly rare or valuable material, though the pigments used to paint it and the formidable transport costs would have added greatly to the price. It is unlikely to have impressed for its intrinsic material value, however.

The renowned art historian Michael Baxandall (1933–2008) identified a crucial change in values around the beginning of the fifteenth century. Increasingly, he argued, patrons were impressed not by material ostentation of precious materials such as gold and expensive pigments, but by the prowess of the artist (Baxandall, 1972, Chapter 1). This is a key and much cited point that deserves closer discussion. There is no doubt that artistic skill had always been valued, demonstrated in the virtuoso character of works of art associated with courts and the prestige of artists such as Beauneveu cited above, and in the careful selection of outstanding artists to work on expensive, high-status projects such as great churches. According to Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, the verses formerly accompanying the great bronze and gilt doors of the abbey church with their reliefs of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ read: ‘If thou seekest to extol the glory of these doors, marvel not at the gold and the expense but at the craftsmanship of the work …’ (Suger, 1979, pp. 47–8). Suger’s comment shows that even in 1145–49 skill might be prized above materials. Artistic skill per se was not really the issue at stake; it was the cultural importance of expensive materials, the status of painting and the status of artists.

Even taking into account expensive pigments, the use of gold and painstaking labour, painting was a relatively low-cost option compared with the work of goldsmiths or embroiderers, for example. While prices were linked to the cost of materials, it was affordable by a much wider range of clients, and hence could not offer the social elite the exclusive cultural cachet they sought. It was when artistic skill became a commodity to be appropriated by the elite that painting attained parity with the arts more traditionally associated with the very wealthy.