Hunting was considered much more than a mere pastime for royalty and the aristocracy. It was a sport which epitomised chivalric and courtly etiquette; it constituted an important means of social interaction and the bestowal of favour; and it required technical training and accomplishment, skill and courage that was considered the peacetime equivalent of prowess in war. It was moreover a means of furnishing sumptuous banquets with prized game.1 The hunt was also, of course, the source of a wealth of both sacred and profane imagery and metaphor in literary, artistic and musical works, but in paintings of the early sixteenth century the theme was more generally subordinated to mythological, historical or religious subjects.
Bibles and psalters often contained hunting imagery in historiated initials and marginalia, but Books of Hours provided the greatest scope for illustrating the months and their associated activities, such as hunting – the most famous example being Les Très Riches Heures, by the Limbourg Brothers, for Jean, Duc de Berry of circa 1412–16 (fig. 1). Some of the most specific and beautifully-rendered scenes of hunting however come, unsurprisingly, from the great medieval hunting treatises, the two most significant of which are probably the Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen’s De arte venandi cum avibus (circa 1230–45) on the art of falconry,2 and the Livre de la chasse (1387–89) by Gaston Phoebus, Comte de Foix et de Béarn, an invaluable reference for medieval hunting.3
The present scene depicts elegantly-dressed noble company in the landscape surrounding a moated, fortified castle, with woods and a park to one side and the peaks of mountains visible beyond. On the left of the composition, a large group of figures advances equipped with the attributes of falconry, including long, flared leather gloves and ‘estortoires’ – rods, described in Phoebus’ treatise, used to move branches aside by those on horseback. They wear rich costumes, typical of courtly hunting dress from the last decades of the 15th century to the mid-sixteenth century, the preponderance of expensive black fabric emphasising their elevated social status. The figures are pictured in different phases of the action: the lady riding side-saddle on a white horse in the foreground (almost a mirror image of the horse and rider further back) holds a bird of prey still wearing its hood. The man wearing black in the middle ground, by contrast, holds his arm up outstretched, either releasing or welcoming back his falcon, which is clearly shown to be active (see detail).4 The goose slung around the horse’s reins, and the heron that his valet has slipped into his belt, attest to the success this gentleman has clearly already enjoyed.
These figures are amongst those engaged in ‘la chasse de haut vol’, in which hawks are used to hunt feathered game birds, such as crows or pigeons, from a great height. Above the castle, just visible in the sky, are the faint silhouettes of a hawk attacking another bird in full flight – a detail only revealed in recent cleaning. The man on horseback standing before the castle with his raised arm holding a bird on a tether is shown demonstrating the use of the lure in this practice – the bird attached to the belt serving to draw the hawk back to its master.5 Other figures are practising ‘la chasse de bas vol’, in which hawks fly to and from the falconer’s fist low to the ground in pursuit of furred or more sedentary feathered game, such as rabbits, hares, or pheasants. The man in red in the centre of the middle ground holds out his fist looking for his bird, the pouch around his waist used to contain bits of meat to attract and reward the falcon. To his right the man with both arms outstretched, watches his bird trap a creature on the ground by the fence.
On the right-hand side of the composition, men and women alike charge out of the forest in pursuit of stags and boar. These figures are practising ‘la chasse par force’ (‘by strength’), as described in detail by Gaston Phoebus (fig. 2). Riders exit the trees chasing a stag with one gentleman blowing his horn, signalling to the man who waits with poised lance, ready to slay the animal at bay. The illustrations to Phoebus’ work depict these different phases of the hunt, including the skinning of the stag (known as ‘the unmaking’) that is also pictured in the present work, lower left, with the gentlemen’s dogs waiting in eager anticipation. Rewarding the dogs with pieces of the carcass was an important part of the ritual (‘the curée’), teaching them to associate their effort with the prize.6 In the lower right foreground, two men with lances pin a boar to the ground, while another man runs forward with an upraised sword to deliver the fatal blow. While the boar hunt was considered the most dangerous form of hunting, since the animal has ‘plus fors armes’ (‘strong defences’) and the chase could be lengthy, requiring courage and perseverance from its pursuers, the stag hunt was regarded as the most noble. Phoebus, in his chapter entitled ‘Du cerf et de toute sa nature’, extols the virtues of the stag hunt, in which all the experience, strength and observation of the hunter is tested by such a swift and crafty quarry.
Beside the castle figures bathe in the moat, accompanied by an assortment of waterfowl. Swimming was generally regarded as hygienic and healthy, discussed in medical treatises as effective in balancing the Four Humours. Representations of swimming are rare but do occur, such as in the illumination for the month of August in Les Très Riches Heures, where a party of swimmers is shown in the background behind a courtly hunting group (fig. 1). Most interesting is a very early representation of swimming in an illustration linked to a passage in Frederick II’s treatise, which commends the mastery of swimming for the falconer should his bird find itself out of reach or in distress on the far side of a river (fig. 3). The author of the present work appears to have included the figures in order to illustrate yet another diversion possible in this cynegetic utopia.
Surveying the whole scene is the fortified castle, upper left. Since the mid-19th century, when the painting entered the present owner’s collection, this edifice has traditionally been identified as Wijnendale Castle, near Torhout, in the province of West Flanders in Belgium. The castle has undergone several transformations since its original purpose as a military fortification in the eleventh century and today it is largely a noneteenth-century reconstruction in the Gothic idiom. At the turn of the fifteenth century, though, it was home to Philip of Cleves, Lord of Ravenstein (1451–1528), inherited from his father, Adolph (1425–92), both of whom made several adaptations to the castle during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries to turn it into a comfortable, country residence. Although no iconographic records exist of the castle from this time, it is indeed set in an extensive landscape and most tellingly, its moat is served by a water course, which may quite possibly be that depicted, upper left.7
The possible identification of the castle thus leads to the consideration of some of the most prominent figures in the painting. The gentleman on the white horse, leading the bird hunt, is brought into focus largely through the rich gold brocade he wears – a most expensive material and in contrast to the plain, though luxurious, fabrics worn by the rest of the company. Behind him is a litter carried by two men on horseback, in which sit two women, one seen from behind with bejewelled hair, the other facing forward, dressed in rich fur-lined fabric, the small white dog on her knees in contrast to all the other hunting dogs. Riding and running next to these figures are two apparently African men, also attired in courtly dress and wearing turbans.
In her study of this painting Hilde Lobelle-Caluwé proposes that the man in gold and the lady visible in the litter are none other than the Emperor Charles V (1500–1558) and his aunt, the Archduchess Margaret of Austria (1480–1530). Charles V is indeed recorded as visiting Wijnendale to partake in the hunt several times from 1517,8 and furthermore, is known to have employed an African, ‘Chrestophle le Nygre’, in his company of archers, who accompanied him to Spain in 1517 and to Germany in 1521–22, and for whom new costumes in the German style, in colours of red, white and green (as are depicted here), were made.9 If the identity of this figure were to be confirmed, in conjunction with the potential date of his costume from the early 1520s, this would tally with the terminus post quem for the painting of after circa 1510, and the terminus ante quem of circa 1542, confirmed by dendrochronological analysis.10
Hunting was certainly a particularly important part of the Habsburgs’ lives, attested to by the number of portraits that depict members of the dynasty holding falcons, even from an early age. Margaret of Austria’s inventories include several references to luxurious collars ordered for her greyhounds; Charles V purportedly kept birds of prey in his bedroom; and his younger sister Mary of Hungary (1505–1558) was said to hunt all night long. Indeed, most comparable to the present work is a painting recorded in a Swedish private collection, attributed by Gustav Glück to Jan Cornesliz. Vermeyen and dated to circa 1530/40,11 a copy of which is in the Szépmüvészeti Múzum, Budapest (fig. 4). It depicts a courtly hunting party wearing similar dress to the figures in the present painting, complete with dogs and falcons. Vermeyen worked as court painter to Margaret of Austria, Mary of Hungary and later travelled with Charles V through much of the second half of the 1530s. Vermeyen executed a number of works commemorating notable events, most famously the designs and cartoons for a series of twelve tapestries depicting Charles’ Conquest of Tunis, overseen by Mary of Hungary. Vermeyen’s close relations with the Habsburgs and their predilection for the hunt have led to a possible identification of the figures in these paintings as Mary of Hungary and her entourage riding in the woods of Brabant.
Although it is difficult to compare the physiognomies of the figures here with known portraits of the Emperor and the Archduchess, the circumstantial evidence for their identification is enticing. Perhaps Philip of Cleves commissioned this painting to record not only his refurbished estate, but a visit from the Holy Roman Emperor and the Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands, or at least wished to ally himself with these rulers. One might then also speculate as to which figure might represent Philip himself. In this light, the present painting should also be compared with Lucas Cranach the Elder and Younger’s series of Stag Hunt paintings set at Hartenfels Castle, near Torgau, which portray Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony (1463–1525) with different rulers of the time, including Charles V.12 Though the portraits (and topography) in Cranach’s paintings are more easily recognisable, the dates of the paintings do not correspond with actual visits by these figures, and the works are today considered rather to signify allegories of ‘Good Government’ and the importance of courtly collaboration for the sake of peace, rather than commemorations of specific events.
A combination of reality and fantasy imbues the present work with its unique charm. Just as Paolo Uccello’s Hunt in the Forest (circa 1465–70) employs an idealised hunting scene in the service of a perspectival exercise,13 this painting uses a high horizon line in order to fit as many different forms of hunting as possible into the wide vista, almost like a collage of the medieval hunting treatise illuminations. The anachronistic simultaneity of these sports contradicts some of their apparent accuracy since, as described in Phoebus’ work, the stag should be hunted in the summer, the boar in winter, and bird hunting should take place in the spring. These technicalities are clearly secondary to the artist’s concern for harmony. Whether the castle and the more prominent figures here really are identifiable must remain a beguiling mystery, but the possible hypotheses serve to reinforce the painting’s sense of subtle unreality.
1 Throughout the present painting men head back to the castle with animals carried over their shoulders, presumably to be prepared for a feast. The small earthenware bottles attached to the castle walls are also relevant – they were designed to provide shelter for starlings with the intention of later capturing and eating the birds as a delicacy.
2 The original manuscript was lost in 1248, but several illustrated contemporary copies were made, including that in the Biblioteca Vaticana, Rome, Pal. lat 1071 and in the Bibliothèque National, Paris, MS FR.12400.
3 The most lavishly illustrated copies of this manuscript are in the Bibliothèque National, Paris, MS FR.616, and in the Morgan Library, MS M.1044, both produced in Paris, circa 1406–07.
4 Visible around this bird’s legs are bells and jesses (strings) – part of the armour of a trained, adult bird of prey. These accoutrements are depicted in astounding detail in Hans Holbein the Younger’s striking portrait of Henry VIII’s chief falconer, Robert Cheseman (Mauritshuis, The Hague, inv. no. 276); see J. Rowlands, The paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger, Oxford 1985, p. 139, cat. no. 46, reproduced plate 80.
5 The man in yellow to the right of this man also appears to be holding a lure in his ungloved hand, though this one, as was common practice, seems to be formed solely of bird’s wings.
6 Dogs abound in the painting, involved in all aspects of the hunts. Though difficult to differentiate precisely, the majority of them appear to be greyhounds, one of the oldest breeds of coursing dogs, privileged in literature, courtly society and heraldry as the most noble breed. Other dogs may well be pointers and spaniels.
7 Another, peculiar aspect of the painting may also confirm Wijnendale as the location – the camouflaged creature climbing the tree above the stag hunt on the right. In June 1522 the Dutch historian Gerard Geldenhouwer (1482–1542) visited Wijnendale and described seeing a species of monkey in the park there – this would appear to be the most plausible identification for an otherwise inexplicable detail.
8 Quoted in Lobelle-Caluwé, vol. I, pp. 45–46.
9 Quoted in Lobelle-Caluwé, vol. I, p. 51.
10 A tree-ring analysis conducted by Ian Tyers of Dendrochronological Consultancy Ltd shows that the five boards comprising the panel were derived from two trees sourced from the eastern Baltic; see report no. 1045: a copy of which is available upon request and will be supplied to the buyer.
11 See G. Glück, ‘Bildnisse aus dem Hause Habsburg: I. Kaiserin Isabella,’ in Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien, VII, 1933, p. 202, reproduced p. 201, fig. 159.
12 The painting by Cranach the Elder, dated 1544, in the Museo del Prado, Madrid (inv. no. P002175), for example; see M.J. Freidlander and J. Rosenberg, Die Gemälde von Lucas Cranach, Basel 1979, cat. no. 411.
13 Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (inv. no. WA1850.31); see J. Pope-Hennessy, Paolo Uccello, London and New York 1969 (2nd ed.), p. 157, reproduced plates 101–06.
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