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Via @gwallter

There are many good reasons for going to Brugge (why do we say Bruges, when it’s a mainly Flemish-speaking city?): the townscape and amazingly preserved buildings, the canals and windmills, the beer and chocolates, the football and the multilingualism. But for me a visit was a chance to renew my long friendship with Gerard David.

David died in Bruges in 1523. He’s usually thought of as the last major figure of ‘early Netherlandish’ painting. In Belgium they label the painters of this period, including Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling, ‘Flemish Primitives’, which is even more misleading, because there’s nothing primitive about their style. Gerard David is one of the least known of them, but unjustly. His vivid use of colour and mastery of detail are exceptional, but there’s also something strange, not easily described, about the way he chooses his subjects and how he chooses to treat them.

David’s paintings are scattered across the world, so that it’s hard to get a grasp of them complete. Also, none of them is signed, so his paintings are attributed to him on stylistic grounds alone. But once you’ve seen one, their magic starts to work on you. The first example of his work I came across was in the National Gallery in Dublin, Christ saying goodbye to his mother – a simple, understated picture but one full of mystery.

The Groeningemuseum in Bruges has a number of paintings by David. The first you see, brilliantly displayed, is a diptych called The judgement of Cambyses. The theme is secular, uniquely among David’s surviving works, and rather grim for modern tastes. Only one other contemporary example is known, and perhaps it was David who first hit upon it. It’s taken from Herodotus, who tells the story of how Cambyses, king of Persia, who had a corrupt judge, Sisamnes, skinned alive for accepting a bridge and passing a false judgement. The skin was used to line the throne, a warning to Otanes, Sisamnes’s son and successor as judge, to keep to the path of impartial justice and avoid fate of his father.

Scene One shows Sisamnes, sitting on his throne, being accused by Cambyses. He looks understandably worried, with his lined forehead and pursed lips. An assistant, a rough-looking bruiser, lays hands on his arm. A soldier, standing next to Cambyses, wears stockings of a brilliant red, and a miniature townscape is reflected in the shiny surface of his helmet. Scene Two skips straight to the punishment: Sisamnes’s red cloak now lies in a heap on the floor, and his body is being stripped of its skin. His teeth are now clenched and his whole face is lined in pain. An anatomist, with the calm face of a professional, makes an initial incision down Sisamnes’ chest. Blood oozes across his skin in two thin streams. In the top right-hand corner of the painting there’s a ‘flash forward’ to Otanes seated in his dad’s reupholstered chair.

Paintings like this one were called exemplae iustitiae, and were exhibited in law courts as reminders to those who worked in them that they should not be swayed by any considerations other than justice – or else. David’s work was commissioned by the aldermen of Bruges in 1498 to be displayed in the council chamber. It may also have had a more immediate agenda, in the turbulent and violent political times of late fifteenth century Bruges.

The other two works by David in the Groeningemuseum are calmer. The baptism of Christ, of around 1502, is an altar triptych commissioned by Jan de Trompes (he is shown in the left-hand panel, and his wife Elizabeth on the right). The theme is conventional, but what’s astonishing about David’s painting is the superb detail, of the landscape in the background, the vestments and especially in the foreground plants. Christ’s feet stand in the river. Under the surface you can see his legs, refracted, and from them tiny concentric rings of water radiate towards the shore.

This attention to detail is even more obvious in a third picture, Rest on the flight into Egypt. This one, according the Groeningemuseum, is ‘attributed to Gerard David’ – perhaps because it may have been inspired by other David pictures on the same theme, including one of his masterpieces, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, perhaps because the treatment of Mary and the baby are unconvincing. But it’s the details that draw your eye. Behind Mary, a man, presumably Joseph, partly hidden from view lies down and takes a nap; his right hand props his head up, and a broad-brimmed bat shields his head from the sun. On the other side, their donkey’s head droops in the heat. A snail, probably symbolic, clings to a rock in the foreground. Behind, a wood, with the leaves and nuts of a tree meticulously described, and in the far blue distance, a town, surrounded by battlemented walls and containing a church. Finally, closest to us, a dandelion-like plant, with open and opening flowers, and a butterfly.

It’s the combination of this extreme, hyperrealist detail with his human but unknowable characters that give Gerard David’s paintings the strange atmosphere they have. His contemporaries, of course, share the same style, poised nicely between the formalism of medieval painting and the new Renaissance freedoms of form and ethos, but David, it seems to me, uses that critical point of artistic development to produce works of magical intensity.

Once you’re past the ‘golden age’ period of early Bruges art – the city began a long economic decline in the sixteenth century – the museum (only part of it is currently open) shows you highlights of later periods. It may be my imagination, but there seems to be a persistent strain of the strange and otherworldly running through Belgian art. James Ensor and Paul Delvaux are obvious examples (Ensor’s prints of the seven deadly sins are on show), and there are two uncanny night paintings here, both set on the sides of canals – one of a palazzo in Venice by William Degouve de Nuncques, the other of houses in Bruges by Henri Le Sidaner.

Next door to the Groeningemuseum is another art museum, the Arentshuis. Its first floor is devoted to an excellent display of the varied works Frank Brangwyn gave to his native city. For anyone familiar with the British Empire Panels in Swansea’s Guildhall it’s a collection that gives a good insight into Brangwyn’s achievements. There are a number of oil paintings and some interesting sketches for the Panels, but it’s the etchings here that show him at his best: he was a fine printmaker and his etchings are firm in composition, confident in detail and full of strong contrasts of light and shade. There are also examples of Brangwyn’s pottery designs and of his wooden furniture, simple and handsome.