One might argue that Western art began in the southern Netherlands. In the context of 40,000 years of human artistic endeavour, painting which gives primacy to the naturalistic depiction of the visible world was an eccentric digression. Yet the illusionistic triad of solidity, space and texture first came together early in the fifteenth century in what is now Belgium, and dominated European art for the next five hundred years.
The Flemish cities of Bruges and Ghent were among the most prosperous and progressive in mediaeval Europe. Brussels and Antwerp peaked later, the latter becoming Europe’s largest port in the sixteenth century. All retain tracts of unspoilt streetscape which place them among the most attractive destinations in northern Europe.
Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert stand at the head of the artistic revolution in the fifteenth century. Their consummate skill with the hitherto unexploited technique of oil painting resulted in pictures which have rarely been equalled for their jewel-like brilliance and breathtaking naturalism. The tradition of exquisite workmanship was continued with the same tranquillity of spirit by such masters as Hans Memling in Bruges and with greater emotionalism by Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels and Hugo van der Goes in Ghent, while Hieronymus Bosch was an individualist who specialised in the depiction of human sin and hellish retribution.
The sixteenth century saw a greater focus on landscape and a shift towards mannerist displays of virtuoso skill and spiritual tension, although the outstanding painter of the century was another individualist, Pieter Bruegel.
A magnificent culmination was reached in the seventeenth century with Peter Paul Rubens, the greatest painter of the Baroque age. His works are of an unsurpassed vigour and vitality, and are painted with a breadth and bravura which took the potential of oil painting to new heights. This tour presents one of the most glorious episodes in the history of art.
Antwerp, Ghent. Depart at c. 11.00am from London St Pancras by Eurostar for Lille, and from there drive to Antwerp. The great port on the Scheldt has an abundance of historic buildings and museums and churches of the highest interest. Four of Rubens’s most powerful paintings are in the vast Gothic cathedral, joined for the first time for the first time since dispersal by the French in 1799. Continue to Ghent by coach.
Ghent, Bruges. With its canals, melancholic hues and highly picturesque streetscape, Bruges is one of the loveliest cities in northern Europe. A major manufacturing and trading city in the Middle Ages, decline had already set in before the end of the 15th century. The Groeninge Museum has an excellent collection by Flemish masters including Jan van Eyck and the Church of Our Lady is home to Michelangelo’s marvellous marble Madonna and Child. St Salvator’s Cathedral contains a triptych by Dirk Bouts.
Ghent, Antwerp. Visit Ghent cathedral to see the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb polyptych by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, one of the greatest masterpieces of Netherlandish painting (undergoing restoration, not all panels are visible at once). In Antwerp, the house and studio Rubens built for himself are fascinating and well stocked with good pictures, and the Mayer van der Bergh Museum has a small but outstanding collection including works by Bruegel.
Bruges. Return to Bruges to see the mediaeval Hospital of St John, now a museum devoted to Hans Memling and contains many of his best paintings. See the market place with its soaring belfry, Gothic town hall and Basilica of the Holy Blood. Back in Ghent visit the Museum of Fine Arts, principally to see a work by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch.
Brussels. The Fine Arts Museum in Brussels is one of the best in Europe, and presents a comprehensive collection of Netherlandish painting as well as international works. Take the Eurostar from Brussels to London St Pancras, arriving c. 6.15pm.
Dr Sophie Oosterwijk
Researcher and lecturer with degrees in Art History, Medieval Studies and English Literature. She is an expert on the Middle Ages, Netherlandish and Dutch art, with a special interest in portraiture, death and commemoration. She has taught at the universities of Leicester, Manchester and St Andrews, and regularly lectures at Cambridge and the Royal Academy. She is co-editor of the journal Church Monuments and has published widely, including edited volumes on fourteenth-century sculpture and on the late-medieval Dance of Death.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £1,920 or £1,720 without Eurostar. Single occupancy: £2,200 or £2,000 without Eurostar.
Rail travel (Standard Premier) on Eurostar; private coach travel for transfers and excursions; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts and three dinners with wine, water and coffee; light meals and drinks on the Eurostar; all admissions; all tips; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Hotel NH Gent Belfort: a comfortable 4-star hotel, excellently located beside the town hall. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
There is quite a lot of standing in museums and walking on this tour, often on cobbled or roughly paved streets. It should not be attempted by anyone who has difficulty with everyday walking and stair–climbing. You will need to be able to carry (wheel) your own luggage on and off the train and within stations. Some days involve a lot of driving. Average distance by coach per day: 55 miles.
Between 10 and 20 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'Our lecturer’s input was inspirational. She is excellent company in the evening. Another excellent holiday.'
'Fantastic, lovely surroundings and great food.'
'Excellent information given and care taken to ensure special exhibitions were included.'
'The lecturer opened my eyes beyond belief, I should have taken this tour years ago.'