18 Lost sons: the psychology of forgetting

 

Why on earth has Nijmegen (municipality, university, museums, library, cultural organisations) so far hardly ever paid any attention to the Van Limburg Brothers, who are, when you look at it closely, her most important sons, certainly in the artistic way? Why, for example, is there a street named after Toorop and none after Maelwael, why is there a square named after Joris Ivens and none after the Van Limburg Brothers? Why has there never been an exhibition, event, conference, chair or commemoration of the Van Limburgs in Nijmegen? Many reasons can be pointed out: psychology, museological traditions, misunderstandings and coincidence all play a part. 

To start with psychology: if the Van Limburg Brothers had been called Van Nimwegen Brothers or Van Hatert Brothers, they would already have been greeted with open arms. The name, the word Limburg (presently the name of a Dutch province) causes subliminal rejection in Nijmegen. (Would Den Bosch always be bragging about Jeroen Bosch if he had been called Jeroen van Eindhoven?)
But there are many other reasons. When the facts about the Maelwael/Van Limburg family became known, the history of early Dutch painting had already been written. In the beginning of the 17th century, Carel van Mander in his famous 'Schildersboek' (='Book of Painters') located the start of Dutch painting in Haarlem and Delft in the last quarter of the 15th century, one hundred years after Herman and Willem Maelwael in Nijmegen. He did not mention any earlier painters, from other parts of the Low Countries. He ignored miniature painters in general in the history of painting. This view assumed a life of its own in the Netherlands, and it still has not penetrated everywhere that Dutch painting reached maturity on parchment. 
If the Van Limburgs had painted on wooden panels or linen - so a bigger size - they would certainly have been much more famous. The museological limitations of miniatures and bound work are clear. Fewer people at the same time can look at a miniature than at a wall-to-wall Rubens. 
Old books are fragile. Perusal or exhibition irrevocably damages their physical integrity. Two important duties of a museum, to preserve and to exhibit, sometimes turn out to be incompatible. Because of the problematic accessibility of a bundled oeuvre and because of the lack of imagination to overcome this, the medieval illustrated book has always been somewhat marginalised in the art world, despite the fact that until the fifteenth century parchment was actually the most important and most advanced medium for painting. The last decades the interest in medieval manuscripts is increasing.

The Nijmegen origin of Jan Maelwael and the Van Limburg Brothers is undisputed, but it contains a lot of confusing elements. To begin with, they have all four of them become known under their Gallicised first and last names, such as Jean Malouel and Pol de Limbourg, designations that rob them more or less of their identity. The fact that their oeuvre has not become renowned under their own name - not even their Gallicised name -, but under that of their patron, the Duc de Berry, adds to the confusion, of course. 
It continually appears to be very difficult to correctly locate the city where Jan Maelwael and the Van Limburg Brothers were born and where they learned their trade. Their cradle is still often placed in Nimwegen or Nimègue - and those place-names can not be found in any modern atlas, neither can Gelre or Berry, by the way.
Millard Meiss, the most important authority in the 1950's and 60's, is correct in a way, but he does not point the interested reader directly to Nijmegen in the Netherlands: 'The artists [….] were born in Nimwegen in the dukedom Gelre, between Maas and Rijn. It would not be right to call them Flemish.'
In other places, in encyclopaedias and on the internet, it is even less clear: 'They came from Nimwegen in what is now Flanders but were generally referred to as Germans.' (WebMuseum). Even the most appraised authors make strange mistakes. In the recent book on the Belles Heures by H. Husband, head curator Middle Ages of the Metropolitan Museum, the brothers are called 'Flemish' and Nijmegen is situated near the Maas. Of course these kinds of mistakes and vagueness do not bring the Maelwael/Van Limburg family and their birthplace Nijmegen any closer together.

 

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