This archived website 'Flemish primitives' is temporarily not being updated. Certain functionality (e.g. specific searches in the collection) may no longer be available. News updates about the Flemish primitives will appear on Questions about this website? Please contact us at

TECHNIQUES: Details and symbols

Hugo van der Goes, Death of the Virgin

The perfection of the painting technique of the Flemish Primitives and the ability for effecting mimesis (the imitation of reality) was highly noted by the commissioners and chronicle writers. The artists themselves were well aware of this. They demonstrated their virtuoisity in a staggering detail of realism that would never be paralleled. The details are often a source of information and bear symbolic meaning.

With the concept of disguised symbolism, the German-American Art Historian Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) points to the hidden religious symbolism in the visible everyday reality of the Flemish primitives. It became one of the most influential, sweeping and misused ideas of the 20th-century interpretation of art. Some researchers fall into overinterpretation and write that the quotidian was an icongoraphical complexity that the artists did not have in mind.

Mieke Parez