[Project:] Heraldry, politics and art: The Order of the Golden Fleece

PhD thesis drs. Marjolijn Kruip, Radboud University Nijmegen, department of Art History


Chapter of the Order of the Golden Fleece. The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Ms 76 E 10, fol. 5v. Source: manuscripts.kb.nl.

Chapter of the Order of the Golden Fleece. The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Ms 76 E 10, fol. 5v. Source: manuscripts.kb.nl.

The Order of the Golden Fleece

In 1430 the Burgundian duke Philip the Good founded the Order of the Golden Fleece to promote and defend Christianity. This knightly order also institutionalised the duke’s aims in being a Christian ruler (a king) in an expanding Christian domain, e.g. by planning a new crusade. The Order of the Golden Fleece became one of the most prestigious monarchical knightly orders. From the Burgundian Valois House the grand mastership moved over to the House of Habsburg through the marriage of Mary of Burgundy to the Austrian archduke Maximilian (1477). Philip the Good and Charles the Bold were succeeded as sovereign of the order by Maximilian, Philip the Handsome, Charles V and Philip II of Spain. The order still exists today, separated in an Austrian and Spanish branch since 1713.

The period 1431-1559 is the episode of the so called ‘great chapters’, held at first once a year and later less frequently. During these events of several days or weeks the knights assembled to discuss all kinds of political-religious topics, but also their own political, religious and moral behaviour. The Burgundian cities and towns in which they gathered altered. Plenary sessions and private meetings were alternated by impressive dinners, parades and tournaments. During religious ceremonies in local churches God was honoured, just like the order’s patrons Saint Andrew and Mary, and the deceased knights were put in remembrance. During these services the knights were seated in the choir stalls. Exactly there, above their seats, the knights left their coats of arms painted on panels by the Burgundian court painters. A complete series consists of paintings with coats of arms (the majority!), princely emblems and additional texts. Placed in the most sacred part of the church these paintings reflect and propagate the great political-religious ambitions the Burgundian (and later on Habsburg-Burgundian) rulers had with their knightly order.


The corpus of Golden Fleece paintings

During the years 1431-1559 the Order of the Golden Fleece left as much as 23 series of panel paintings in the choir of the churches the knights visited during the chapters. Until today seven series are preserved in churches, and some isolated paintings with coats of arms in museums and private collections.

The series are preserved in the Sint-Baafskathedraal in Ghent (chapters 1445 en 1559), the Grote Kerk in The Hague (chapter 1456), the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk in Bruges (chapter 1468), the Sint-Donaaskathedraal in Bruges (chapter 1478), de Sint-Romboutskathedraal in Mechelen (chapter 1491) and the Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia in Barcelona (chapter 1519). Remnants of series can be found in Musée Sandelin in Saint-Omer (chapter 1440), the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon (supplement 1460), the Noordbrabants Museum in ’s-Hertogenbosch (chapter 1481; on loan from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam) and a private collection in Oostelbeers (chapter 1481).

From a material point of view it’s important to note that the corpus consists of originals, old and relatively new copies and remakes, sometimes placed next to each other. This causes all kinds of difficulties in interpreting these paintings. Another feature that confuses the perception besides the dating is the condition of the paintings. Some of them are heavily restored, without knowing what’s left (if something is left…) of the original.

Golden Fleece paintings in the Grote Kerk in The Hague (1545-1546), chapter 1456. Photo: MK (2014).

Golden Fleece paintings in the Grote Kerk in The Hague (1545-1546), chapter 1456. Photo: MK (2014).

The only series that is recently restored and is given a fixed date based on material, art historical and dendrochronological research is the sixteenth century Golden Fleece series in the Grote Kerk in The Hague (1545-1546), which reminds of the chapter in 1456. The restoration and conservation was carried out by the Stichting Restauratieatelier Limburg (SRAL) in Maastricht (led by Gwen Fife) and the Radboud University Nijmegen (Marjolijn Kruip) in 2009-2013.


PhD project

The art historical and heraldic research of the restoration and conservation project is followed up by the PhD project Heraldry, politics and art (work title). The thesis is divided in two parts. The first part researches:

  • the corpus that was made (How many series were made, when, for which church/town and by whom?);
  • the corpus that’s left (What is preserved and how is it conserved?);
  • the heraldic-emblematic programme that is communicated by the series (How to read the concept of a series in general?) within the visual material heritage of the Order of the Golden Fleece (How do Golden Fleece paintings relate to other products of the Burgundian heraldic-emblematic system of signs?);
  • and the rituals and ceremonials surrounding these heraldic-emblematic paintings (What rituals and ceremonials played a role in understanding the function and meaning of Golden Fleece paintings?).

The second part of the PhD thesis is devoted to the chapter in The Hague (1456) and the Golden Fleece paintings in the Grote Kerk (1545-1546). This first and only chapter in the county of Holland was organised because of a conflict regarding a bishop’s see (a tail end of the Hook and Cod wars). Among the quarrellers were some knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece and Philip the Good himself. This second part of the thesis mainly focuses on:

  • the chapter of 1456 (What was the political-historical background of the chapter? How did Philip the Good represent himself heraldically and emblematically in The Hague? How was the original series of Golden Fleece paintings to be interpreted in the specific context of The Hague and the county of Holland?);
  • and the sixteenth century Golden Fleece paintings in the Grote Kerk in The Hague (When, why, how and by whom was the original series re-made? What’s the biography of the preserved objects in the historical context of the church?).


Methods and techniques

The PhD project departs from a combined art historical and cultural historical approach. The objects of research and other visual and textual sources are examined by the principles of the historical method. A critical analysis of the preserved Golden Fleece paintings regarding date (original or not?) and reliability (restoration and conservation) is a condition for knowing whether they can be considered as sources (depending on which part of history is studied and from what perspective, of course). This part of the research is executed by material and stylistic analyses of the paintings (by observation, restoration and conservation reports), heraldic analyses (by comparing Golden Fleece paintings, Golden Fleece armorials and general armorials), and dendrochronological analyses of the paintings (if available). The phenomena of the Golden Fleece paintings and the chapters with all surrounding traditions and rites is studied by analysing contemporary descriptions, literature and archive material.

The 'Binnenhof' in The Hague

The ‘Binnenhof’ in The Hague, location of the ninth chapter (1456).



Expected date of completion of the PhD-thesis: 2017.

A part of the results will be published in 2016 in an article on ‘Jan van Battel (1477-1557), heraldic painter in Mechelen’ in the yearbook Handelingen van de Koninklijke Kring voor Oudheidkunde, Letteren en Kunst van Mechelen. Jan van Battel was one of the court painters who worked on at least four Golden Fleece series (including the paintings in The Hague), but also armorials, monumental heraldic triptychs and thousands of coat of arms on all kinds of layers. This first monographic article about the painter Van Battel is focused on the heraldic artist, the status of court painter, his works and new findings. Archival and literature research led to 40 assignments.

About the restoration of the paintings in The Hague is published (available online via academia.edu):

  • “Gulden-Vliesborden in Den Haag: restauratie en interpretatie”, Heraldisch Tijdschrift 21 (2015), nr. 2, 40-45.
  • “Updates”, Nieuwsbrief Grote Kerk Den Haag, summer 2011 en 2012.



For questions and remarks, please email: m.kruip@let.ru.nl.

Cite this blog post
Marjolijn Kruip (2016, April 13). [Project:] Heraldry, politics and art: The Order of the Golden Fleece. Heraldica Nova. Retrieved February 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/phyx

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