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Exotic Primitives


The Flemish Primitives lived in a society that was rapidly changing. A whole 'new' world was being discovered, which brought with it the realisation that there were other cultures besides the western one. Little by little, the artists began to include influences from Arabia, the East and (later) the Americas in their work. Nowadays, these regions are well known, if not commonplace, but to the men and women of the Middle Ages they were something new and exciting-something exotic.

Detail from Anonymus Master,
Missal of the Bruges Magdalena, 1454,
Grootseminarie Brugge, MS.48/3

The Flemish Primitives drew their inspiration for exotic themes from a variety of sources. However, it is difficult to establish precisely 'who used what'. Information about the new cultures flooded into Western Europe through many different channels and it is almost impossible to discern exactly how individual artists of the Late Middle Ages dealt with it.

Today we can only speculate on how these first contacts with this 'other' world took place. The various sources available only allow us to make a partial reconstruction of the process. The crusades to the Holy Land and the re-conquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors had first stimulated interest for the Arab world in the Christian West. Other wars also brought Europeans into contact with new cultures. Equally important - and certainly not to be underestimated - is the role pilgrimage played: serving as the mass tourism of the Middle Ages, complete with package tours and travellers' guides. Traders and merchants also had firsthand experience of how other cultures lived and worked. Everyone who visited one of these far-off destinations, for whatever reason, returned with stories of the exotic things they had seen; stories which excited curiosity and fascination in their home communities. In this manner, an image was gradually created of an'immense and unknown' world outside of Europe. Unfortunately, this was sometimes a false image in which prejudices and assumptions led a life of their own, resulting in notions that would today be regarded as racist.

Jan Provoost,
Crucifixion, ca. 1501-05,
GRO 0.1661.I

World maps

Knowledge of geography at the end of the Middle Ages was very confused. Cartographers had developed various theories about the way the world should look, but there was no uniformity of thinking. It is difficult for modern man to realise that these cartographers scarcely knew that the earth orbited around the sun or that there were other continents besides Europe. The 'discovery' of the 'new' world only made matters more complicated. Some travel reports were kept secret; others were discredited or disbelieved. The instruments used for taking cartographic measurements were also notoriously inaccurate and the empirical observation of the natural world was coloured by traditional ideas and theological-ideological motives.

Moreover, the Bible was still regarded as the definitive scientific book, by whose standards everything was assessed. In this sense, maps were not only documents for practical use, but were also representations of the world as created by God. Medieval cartographers even had difficulty in distancing themselves from the geographical and cosmological theories of Ancient Greece.

Fra Mauro map

Fra Mauro, 1457-59

Bibliotheca Nazionale Marciana, Venezia (IT)

The Fra Mauro map is oriented in a southerly direction, which means that Africa is at the top. The representation of Africa is particularly impressive, bearing in mind that at this date the Portuguese had not travelled any further south than 12°N.

Fra Mauro believed that India could be reached via the Cape of Good Hope, a belief that probably encouraged the Portuguese to explore this route in 1488. As this is one of the first western maps with representations of the Japanese islands, Fra Mauro must have made use of Chinese and Arabian sources.

Cantino map

Anonymous, 1502

Biblioteca Estense, Modena (IT)

This map is named after the person who commissioned it: Alberto Cantino, a diplomat in the service of the Duke of Ferrara. It is a copy of a large map that was originally made in Lisbon. Cantino smuggled the map into Italy. It is particularly well known for containing the first (?) representation of a fragment of the Brazilian coastline.

Voyages of discovery

1492: Colombus discovers the Antilles and the American continent

1498: Vasco da Gama sails around the Cape of Good Hope and reaches India

1500: Pedro Alvarez Cabral lands in Brazil

1522: Magellan sails around the world

Never in human history has man's image of his own world been changed so rapidly or so radically as during this thirty-year period... Vasco de Gama wrote a brief summary of his second voyage. This was published in 1504 under the title Calcoen (Calicut). It is the world's oldest printed travel narrative.

In addition to stories of their fantastic adventures, the explorers also returned with colourful species of fauna and flora; with all kinds of weird and wonderful objects; and even with 'strange' human captives from the new territories. Little by little, these exotic elements were assimilated into western culture - and art.

Anonymus Master,
Author: Sebastian Münster,
Cosmografia universalis, 1552,
old print by H. Petri in Basel,
Public library of Bruges, 2559

Travel Stories and Reports

Anonymous Master,
Author: anonyme,
Hortus Sanitatis, 1517,
printed by R. & B. Beck in Strassbourg, 
Public Library of Bruges, 2507

Stories about foreign lands were very popular during the Middle Ages. The oldest known travel report dates from 333: the Itinerarium Burdigalense, an anonymous work which describes a journey from Bordeaux (France) to the Holy Land.

Stories of this kind exercised an important influence on the development of the science of geography and on the wider public perception of the exotic new lands. Originally, the stories were passed on - and exaggerated - by word of mouth, but later many of them were written down and eventually published in book form. In general, they are little more than fantastic descriptions of monstrous peoples, strange customs, dubious morals and miraculous adventures. Amongst the most well-known books of this kind are the Voyage of St. Brendan (13th Century), Il Milione by Marco Polo (13th Century), Voyage d'Outremer by John of Mandeville (14th Century) and Imago Mundi by Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly (15th Century).

St. Brendan was an Irish saint who made a legendary seven-year voyage, surviving many adventures along the way. The core of this legend is based on an Old Irish sea story from the 9th Century. The Nagiatio Brandani was one of Europe's first printed books.

In Il Milione, Marco Polo recounts his adventures to his fellow prisoner, Rustichello of Pisa, who wrote the stories down. It is unusual in a work of this kind for travel information to be mixed with tales of personal experiences. John of Mandeville described his adventurous journeys to the great 'tourist' sites of the Middle East, Africa and Asia in a two-volume work, which was widely known and hugely popular during the Middle Ages.

Imago Mundi is a compilation of geographical facts and figures dating from the 15th Century. Christopher Columbus consulted this book during the preparations for his great voyages of discovery.

'I, John of Mandeville, a knight of the realm (although I am not worthy to bear such a title), born and raised in England, in the city of St. Albans, undertook this voyage across the seas in the year of Our Lord 1322, setting sail on St. Michael's Day. I was many months and years on the waters of the world and I have observed and travelled in many lands, many provinces, many kingdoms and divers Islands. I have passed through Turkey, through Lesser and Greater Armenia, through the Kingdom of the Tartars, through Persia, Syria and Arabia, through Chaldea and Amazonia, through the near, middle and farthest reaches of India. And I have seen many strange peoples, each with their own different laws and each differing in wisdom, faith and appearance.

From: John of Mandeville, Voyage d'Outre-Mer, introduction

Anonymous Master,
Author: Ptolomaeus,
Geographia universalis, 1542,
Printed by H. Petri in Basel,
Public Library Bruges, 2544


During the Late Middle Ages no other city in North-West Europe had a more cosmopolitan character or a greater international reputation than Bruges. The city was an important meeting point at the junction of two major trading areas: the north European Hanseatic League and the city-states of the Italian peninsula. In addition to trading goods, these 'foreigners' also brought with them prosperity, knowledge and cultural innovation.

The following table gives an incomplete list of the 'southern' products that were available in Bruges in the years around 1300:

Spanish Kingdoms: twine, leather, sheepskins, liquorice, almonds, fur, sailsheets, saffron, rice, wax, wool, pelts, mercury, cumin, beef and pork fat, aniseed, iron, honey, olive oil, figs, grapes

Portugal and its "Colonies" (in the 15th Century): yew wood from Madeira, sugar, ivory, spices, leopards

Fez (Morocco): wax, leather goods, pelts, maple wood, cumin...

Sijilmassa (Sahara): dates, white alum...

Constantinople: alum, almonds...

Jerusalem, Egypt, Sudan: spices, redwood...

Armenia: cotton, spices...

Kingdom of Tartars: gold, silk, pearls, pelts...

Tunesia and Bougie (Algeria): sheepskins, leather goods, wax, pumice...

Majorca: alum, rice, leather, figs...

Sardina: pelts...

Venice (in the 15th Century): spices from Asia, high quality textiles, jewels, paper, glass, cotton, sugar, exotic fruits, wine, olive oil, precious stones, including diamonds...

Literary sources

During the Middle Ages, the greatest source of literary inspiration was undoubtedly the Bible. This was the definitive book by which all human endeavours were judged. In addition, the literary authority of several seminal works from antiquity should not be underestimated. The re-conquest

of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors during the 12th Century allowed the scholars of Christian Europe to rediscover many of the great works of Aristotle. These manuscripts - later published in book form - had a considerable influence on the development of the sciences of logic, philosophy, physics, medicine, ethics, etc. in western culture.

A selection of other important literary works:

Jacobus de Voragine (13th Century) compiled a book detailing the lives of various saints. This book was known as the Legendea Aurea and was extremely popular in the Middle Ages, not only with the general public but also as a oft-used source of inspiration for artists.

The Biblium Pauperum or Paupers' Bible was not really a bible, nor was it intended for the poor. It is a summary of texts (with illustrations) relating to scenes from both the Old and New Testaments. In the 14th and 15th Centuries it was widely available in the form of a block book.

With his book Speculum majus, Vincent of Beauvais attempted to compile a work that brought together all the most valuable texts relating to human knowledge in its many various forms. This 'encyclopaedia' also contained a number of miniatures, some of which show fantastic monsters.

'The sponge, according to Pliny, is a fish which clings to rocks in the sea and which lives from slime. They need to be worked loose unobtrusively, otherwise it is almost impossible to prise them free, because they sense danger and hold on ever tighter. These creatures are not brought to our part of the world because they are tasty to eat, but because they can be used for other purposes.'

From : Jacob van Maerlant, Der naturen bloeme

During the 13th Century, Jacob van Maerlant was one of the most popular authors in the Low Countries. In addition to books on a wide range of different subjects, including the lives of the saints and adventure stories, he also wrote an important book about biology: Der naturen bloeme. This was a reworking of the much older Liber de natura rerum by Thomas of Cantimpré, who in turn drew much of his material from Aristotle's Historia Animalium (4th Century BC) and the anonymous Physiologus (2nd Century).

Exotic figures

Frey Carlos,
Crucifixion, ca. 1500,
GRO 0.89.1.I

At the end of the Middle Ages, Bruges was one of Europe's most prominent international meeting centres. Of the city's 45,000 inhabitants, at least 6,000 were of non-Flemish origin (15th Century). Bruges was therefore a melting pot of different cultures. However, it is striking how few non-Europeans or 'exotic' people came to settle in our region. The Flemish Primitives mainly painted European subjects, although 'exotic' figures do occasionally appear in their works...


Very little is known about the presence of coloured peoples in North-West Europe during the Middle Ages. Consequently, it cannot be said with any degree of certainty where the artists managed to find their Negro models, although there are a number of different hypotheses.

Coloured people must already have been seen in the Low Countries during the period of the Roman Conquest. The annual trade fairs in Flanders and elsewhere were frequently attended by merchants from the Mediterranean, whose galleys were often rowed by black slaves from Africa. The crusades must also have increased European contact with peoples of a different skin colour. Even so, before 1500 there is no direct evidence for the presence of coloured people in the Low Countries. During the 16th Century the first black slaves began to arrive in Antwerp, transported there by the Portuguese and the Spanish. Between 1549 and 1555, a thriving trade route developed between Antwerp and Sao Tomé, an island off the west coast of Africa.

Anonymous Master
Adoration by the Magi (ca. 1520), GRO 0.213.I


The Roma people - more commonly known as gypsies - are believed to have originated in north-western India. In the 14th Century, significant concentrations of gypsies were already being reported in Cyprus, Crete and along the coast of the Peloponnesus (then known as Little Egypt). It was for this reason that the Roma were referred to as 'Egyptians' - from which the name 'gypsy' was eventually derived.

A first group of gypsies arrived in Brussels on 3 January 1420. Initially, they were received with courtesy and hospitality, but after a time they were no longer welcome. In 1452 the Count of Egypt and his following were paid eight 'stuivers' (a substantial sum in the Flemish currency of the time) to leave the town of Damme immediately and peacefully. Later, whole groups were banished or deported.

In the works of art of the period, the gypsies are depicted as dark-skinned figures with long black hair, oriental clothing, large earrings and a turban.

The Magi

'1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, 2 Saying, 'wher is he that is born King of the Jews, for we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him?" ... 9 When they had heard of the king, they departed; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over the place where the young child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary, his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, frankincense and myrrh ...'

From: The Holy Bible, St. Matthew, chapter 2

One of the oldest representations of the Magi is to be found in the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome (end 2nd Century - beginning 3rd Century). They are portrayed as influential and well-educated priests from Mesopotamia or Persia. Their visit to the infant Jesus symbolises the victory of the new Christian religion over the Persian god Mithras.

During the 9th Century, popular belief resulted in the Magi being given names: Melchior, Balthasar and Caspar. From the 12th Century onwards, they were shown wearing crowns, allowing them to conform to the traditional medieval image of the king as miracle worker. Influenced by Byzantine art, the three kings now came to represent the three ages of life: the kneeling older king, the bowing middle-aged king and the erect young king.

In his Historia Trium Regnum, Johannes of Hildesheim (V1375) argued that the birth of Jesus signalled the start of a new covenant between the Son of God Made Flesh and all the peoples of the world. Within this hypothesis, the three kings represented the three continents that were known to exist at that time: Europe, Asia and Africa. In this sense, the kings were believed to be the descendants of the sons of Noah. Shem had mocked the naked drunkenness of his father and was cursed by Noah (Genesis, chapter 9). As a result, he was given skin 'the colour of the devil' and became the forefather of the African nations. After the discovery of the New World, the Portuguese tried to introduce a fourth, Native American king, but the idea never caught on.

European artists have always portrayed Melchior and Balthasar as 'white' kings. At first, Caspar was also shown as a 'white' king, but later he was repainted as a 'black' king and later still he was represented exclusively as a Negro. Dressed in luxurious robes, strongly influenced by current events or local traditions, the kings are accompanied by a mixed retinue of exotic followers and colourful animals.


During the period of Roman rule, the Jews initially enjoyed a privileged status, but their position worsened after Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Gradually, the Jews came to be hated because they had 'murdered' Christ, because of their 'unbelief' and because of their association with money lending and usury.

In 1290 King Edward I of England banished all Jews from his kingdom. In 14th-century France, the Jews were accused of bribing lepers to poison the wells, thereby encouraging the transmission of the plague. This rumour spread quickly throughout Europe and resulted in the massacre of thousands. At the fourth Lateran Council in 1215, Pope Innocent III decided that all Jews should be debarred from holding public office; that Christians should not be allowed to consult Jewish doctors; and that the Jews must wear special clothing or symbols of recognition. This latter form of stigmatisation varied from place to place: sometimes they had to wear a special hat (the 'Judenhut'); sometimes an emblem in the form of a wheel; sometimes (in Portugal, for example) a red or yellow star. Jewish women were forced to stitch two blue stripes to their veils or cloaks. In 1415 Pope Benedict XIII even went so far as to order that all Jews must be confined to isolated ghettoes.

There were relatively few Jews in the Low Countries during the Middle Ages, only some small groups in the cities of Brabant, along the trade route between Cologne and Bruges. Perhaps their absence is explained by the domination of the financial markets in Flanders by the great Italian banking houses.

The artists of the day tended to portray the Jews as the personification of evil: ragged beard, long nose, pointed hat, tight clothing, warts, bulging eyes, fleshy lips, etc. They were mostly dressed in yellow, since yellow was the colour of disgrace, reserved for identifying society's outcasts, such as whores, lepers and ... Jews. From the 15th Century onwards they were often (and paradoxically) represented as almost Islamic-looking Orientals.


During the Middle Ages the Muslims were referred to as Mohammedans or Moors. Islam was regarded as a heretical sect, which must be fought with all the forces at society's disposal. The crusades to the Holy Land and the re-conquest of the Iberian Peninsula are the two clearest examples of this belief. Nevertheless, there were also more peaceful contacts between the Muslim and Christian communities, which allowed the Europeans to learn much about navigation, agriculture, music, literature, medicine, astronomy, etc.

The Flemish Primitives hardly ever painted Muslims. However, The Legend of St. George by an unknown Flemish master does show an executioner with the word VANOMETANI on his belt, which many believe to be a cryptic reference to the prophet Mohammed.

In the paintings of the day the infidels were depicted as Jews: ugly people with a beard or moustache, wearing a typical hat or turban and dressed in tight-fitting clothes, usually yellow in colour. The princess - who later became known as St. Margaret of Antioch (a town in Turkey) -looks nothing like a sultry Libyan beauty, but resembles a lady of the Flemish court or a rich Roman noblewoman. Similarly, the artists have not painted the story in its North African setting, but have used an idealised Flemish landscape.

'Once upon a time a man named George, a warrior-knight from Cappadocia, came to the city of Silena in the province of Libya. Near to the city was a swamp as large as the sea, and in the swamp there lived a terrible dragon. Every day the citizens of Silena brought two sheep to feed the monster and to appease his fearful temper. After a time, there were almost no more sheep to give and so the elders decided, after long deliberation, that henceforth the dragon should be fed with one sheep and one human being. The human victims were to be chosen by the drawing of lots and no family, however noble, was to be spared. After many of the city's sons and daughters had already been eaten, destiny finally chose the only daughter of the king. He dressed her in her finest royal clothes and bade her a tearful farewell, before sending her off to the swamp. By chance, St. George happened to be passing the spot where the young maid was awaiting her fate and he asked her why she was crying. "Fear not, young damsel," cried George. "In Christ's name, I will help thee!" George mounted his horse and with savage strokes of his sword brought the monster to its knees. "Throw your belt around its neck," he shouted to the princess. She did as she was asked and was able to lead the dragon back to the city like a welltrained dog. "If you accept Christ into your hearts and allow yourself to be baptised, then I will slay the dragon," said George. As a result, the king and all his people received the holy baptism. Because of his devotion to the true faith, George was later tortured and beheaded by Proconsul Dacianus.'

Free translation from Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, 13th century


By the end of the 15th Century, the Europeans had a good idea about the size and shape of their own continent and the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. They also had vague notions about the rest of Africa and Asia, but there was no coherent picture of the world as a whole.

Travelling was very popular during the Middle Ages. Kings rode throughout their territories. Seasonal workers moved from land to land, as the year progressed. Pilgrims sought salvation in cities as far apart as Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago da Compostella. Students travelled in search of knowledge. Merchants travelled in search of business. Thanks to travel stories and guides, even those who remained at home could learn more about the customs, appearance, peoples, gastronomy, art and culture of these 'exotic' places. There was only one general rule: the further the destination, the more exaggerated the story!

Craftsmen and artists also formed part of this travelling circus. They often made long journeys, not only to seek inspiration or to find new patrons, but also to study the great masterpieces created by artists outside their own country. This meant that the artists of the 15th and 16th Centuries must have been able to form a clear image of these exotic locations from books, drawings and their own experiences. Nevertheless, they continued to set most of their works in a Flemish décor.

Jan Provoost,
Crucifixion, ca. 1501-05,
GRO 0.1661.I

The artist Jan Provoost is thought to have seen Jerusalem with his own eyes. As a member of the Order of the Jerusalem Pilgrims, he had probably visited the city before the creation of his great masterpiece The Crucifixion, painted between 1501 and 1505. The central theme of this work is the triumph of Christianity over the forces of unbelief. In the background, the cities of Jerusalem and Rome (or Istanbul?) can be seen. A procession of soldiers, dressed as Jews and Muslims, are returning from Golgotha, where they have just completed the execution of Jesus.

'He who wishes to journey to the Levant and to visit the lands over the sea, so that he may travel there in divers places and converse with divers peoples, let him first of necessity gather information on many subjects from those who have been there before him and who have experienced the great hardships which he will experience ...'

From: Tvoyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele (travel narrative written by A. Zeebout between 1481 and 1485)

During the 14th and 15th Centuries, many travellers undertook the long and dangerous journey in search of the kingdom of Pape Jan. According to several different stories and legends, this prince lived near the 'land of the blacks', where he strove to maintain a Christian enclave against the encroaching tide of Islam. Many Europeans saw this as an opportunity to show a united front against the infidel. This was an opinion shared by Joos van Ghistele, a leading nobleman from the city of Ghent. He spent three years in the Middle East, before finally giving up his hopeless quest and returning home. His reminiscences of his experiences in the Arab world, including a lengthy chapter on Jerusalem and a vivid description of the pyramids of Egypt, were widely circulated throughout the Low Countries

Exotic Animals

Anonymous Master,
Author: anonyme, 
Hortus Sanitatis, 1517,
old print by R. en B. Beck in Straatsburg,
Public Library Bruges, 2507

In Western Europe exotic animals were mainly found at the courts of kings, popes and rich aristocrats. They not only provided amusement and entertainment, but also greatly enhanced the prestige of their owners. It was with this aim in mind that the Caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, presented an elephant to the Emperor Charlemagne (9th Century). The greatest collector of exotic animals was undoubtedly Emperor Frederick II (• 1250). His own personal 'zoo' contained elephants, camels, dromedaries, leopards, gerfalcons, ostriches, parrots and a giraffe.

In the Late Middle Ages, collections of this kind were an almost obligatory part of any royal residence. The palace park in Brussels was home to several exotic species from the recently discovered Spanish territories, including wild buffalo, ostriches, camels, a parrot and even four American turkeys. Maximilian of Austria (15th Century) was so attached to a pair of lions that he had them transferred from residence to residence whenever he moved!

Anonymous Master,

Author: anonyme, Auteur: anoniem,

Dialogus creaturarum moralisatus, 1480, printed by G. Leeu in Gouda, Public Library Bruges, 3872

The increased numbers of animals being imported from the New World and the frequent contacts of the artists with the courts of the rich meant that the painters of the period must have been familiar with these exotic birds and beasts.

However, most artists continued to paint only native animals in their works, notwithstanding the fact that there were several themes which would have allowed 'new' animals to be included: the Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark, the Three Kings, etc.

The lion is the symbol of both St. Hieronymus and St. Mark the Evangelist. It also appeared regularly in medieval coats-of-arms, where it represented power and might. The illustrations contained in the bestiaria (animal books) and encyclopaedia were often used by artists as models for their paintings of lions. Sadly, these illustrations were copied so often that they gradually lost any realistic quality they once possessed.

'The word 'manticore' means 'man-eater'. In the 13th century the Italian Brunetto Latini confirmed that "the manticore loves human flesh above all other food". Nowadays we understand the term 'maneater' to mean creatures such as the most dangerous sharks. But the Bestiaria had a very different type of creature in mind. Their maneater had the body of a lion but the head and ears of a man. It also had a scorpion's tail and three rows of teeth ...'

From: M. Dekkers, Bestiarium


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Elviera Velghe