5 Willem and Herman Maelwael, the first generation


Painting in the Low Countries developed from decorating shields, weapons and pennants with heraldic colours and emblems. Willem and Herman Maelwael, citizens of the town of Nijmegen, were such painters in the original sense of the word. They decorated anything which could be decorated by paint and gold leaf; shield and armour, guild banners, but also the weathercock. They worked for knights, citizens and prelates, but were independent entrepreneurs. 
For some of their assignments, they did not need to walk far. The town hall was literally next door. The town of Nijmegen provided some work now and then, but their main patron was Willem van Gulick, Duke of Gelre, not much farther away, at the end of Burchtstraat on the Valkhof. Duke Willem lived there regularly, as long as he was not travelling, for example to Prussia, on a crusade against the heathenish Baltic in weaponry painted by Herman Maelwael. In fact, virtually all assignments of the ducal court went to Herman or Willem. Probably, the Maelwaels were familiar with Duke Willem and his wife Katharina, and were seen as courtiers. This would partly explain the ease with which the next generations Maelwaels/Van Limburgs moved in Europe's highest circles. 

It is assumed that Herman Maelwael had, around 1370, risen to the function of king of arms of Gulick, a very important ceremonial position, through his expert knowledge of heraldry. Also, there are indications that this Herman was the creator of a remarkable miniature in the "Codex Gelre", a beautiful armorial which is preserved in the Royal Library in Brussels. 
Willem and Herman both owned a house in Burchtstraat, the broad street which, since time immemorial, runs in a gracious curve from Grote Markt to Valkhof. One house, possibly Herman's, used to be next to town hall, on the other side of Nieuwstraat, roughly at the site where presently Bally shoe shop is established. Willem lived on the other side of Burchtstraat, on the corner of Stokkumstraat, the alley diagonally across from present-day Marikenstraat. This alleyway was new at the time, and was spontaneously named after Willem's then neighbour, goldsmith Adam van Stockum. Painters and goldsmiths often used to live and work side by side at that time. Their metiers overlapped. All generations Maelwael/Van Limburg were trained in the use of gold (leaf).

After 1396, Willem and Herman Maelwael suddenly disappear without a trace from the annals of Nijmegen and the province Gelre. Increasingly, indications are found that they moved to France, together with Willem's son Jan. Especially Herman has lately been named as co-worker of the "Turin-Milan Breviary", the same famous manuscript (the sheets alluded to are presently in the Louvre) at which his great-nephews and also Jan van Eyck would work for some time, a few years later. 
Probably Herman, and possibly also Willem, died around 1400. A lot still needs to be studied and described of these two Nijmegen brothers, but one thing is certain: Willem and Herman Maelwael are the first painters from the Northern Dutch tradition of whom we know more than their name, or a designation invented at a later date.


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