In the Musée d’Art Ancien, the blue area displays paintings of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, including the Flemish primitives and the Bruegels, and the brown area concentrates on paintings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the collection of Rubens (for which the museum is internationally famous) as a particular highlight.
The museum owns several paintings by Rogier van der Weyden (1399–1464), who moved to Brussels from his home town of Tournai (in today’s southern Belgium) in the 1430s, becoming the city’s official painter shortly afterwards. When it came to portraiture, Weyden’s favourite technique was to highlight the features of his subject – and tokens of rank – against a black background. His Portrait of Antoine de Bourgogne is a case in point, with Anthony, the illegitimate son of Philip the Good, casting a haughty, tight-lipped stare to his right while wearing the chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece and clasping an arrow, the emblem of the guild of archers.
Weyden’s contemporary, Leuven-based Dieric Bouts (1410–75) is well represented by the two panels of his Justice of the Emperor Otto. The story was well known: in revenge for refusing her advances, the empress accuses a nobleman of attempting to seduce her. He is executed, but the man’s wife remains convinced of his innocence and subsequently proves her point by means of an ordeal by fire – hence the red-hot iron bar she’s holding. The empress then receives her just desserts, being burnt on the hill in the background.
One of the museum’s most interesting paintings is a copy of Temptations of St Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516); the original is in Lisbon’s Museu Nacional. No one is quite sure who painted this triptych – it may or may not have been one of Bosch’s apprentices – but it was certainly produced in Holland in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. The painting refers to St Anthony, a third-century nobleman who withdrew into the desert, where he endured fifteen years of temptation before settling down into his long stint as a hermit. It was the temptations that interested Bosch – rather than the ascetic steeliness of Anthony – and the central panel has an inconspicuous saint sticking desperately to his prayers surrounded by all manner of fiendish phantoms. The side panels develop the theme – to the right Anthony is tempted by lust and greed, and on the left Anthony’s companions help him back to his shelter after he’s been transported through the skies by weird-looking demons.
Another leading Flemish artist, Quinten Matsys (1465–1530) is well represented by the Triptych of the Holy Kindred. Matsys’ work illustrates a turning point in the development of Low Country painting, and in this triptych, completed in 1509, he abandons the realistic interiors and landscapes of his Flemish predecessors in favour of the grand columns and porticoes of the Renaissance. Each scene is rigorously structured, its characters – all relations of Jesus – assuming lofty, idealized poses.