Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Flag of the City of Ghent
  • Creator: Agnes van den Bossche, painter
  • Description:

    This is a medieval war standard from 15th century Ghent. A standard is a flag that was carried into battle with an army, to show their allegiance. This particular standard depicts the Maiden of Ghent and the lion from the city’s coat of arms. There is also a gothic gilded letter “G” which stands for Ghent. Together, the images of the Maiden and the lion are a very famous symbol for the city representing unity and power. During the late medieval period, there would have been many such standards in Ghent; however, this is the only one that has survived because it was stored in a city records office. Scholars have attributed this flag to the artist Agnes van den Bossche because of a document that surfaced commissioning a flag with the same specifications from van den Bossche with payment from the government of Ghent. The flag itself is made of dyed black linen, so that while it is not of the highest quality, it is durable. The maiden and the lion were painted onto the linen with oil paint on both sides, and a green silk fringe runs around the edge of the nine-foot-long flag.

    The maiden in the image comes from a 14th century poem written by Baudouin van der Lore. The poem recounts an allegorical siege that referred to Count Louis de Male’s attack on Ghent, which was occurring at the time the poem was written. In the poem, a young maiden, representing the city of Ghent, is being protected from her attackers by her lion, Christ, and a series of Flemish saints. The maiden on this standard is dressed like a gothic princess. The ermine border at the hems and collar of her outfit as well as the rich figured brocade indicate her high social status as well as the value the citizens of Ghent placed on the conspicuous consumption of the textiles produced in their city. This image of the Maiden of Ghent is in keeping with traditional Gothic standards of beauty. Her breasts are small, and her stomach protrudes from beneath her high waist. She wears a brocade dress that has a tight waistband, and tight sleeves with long cuffs. Underneath her dress, she wears an underdress with a horizontal neckline, which is a traditional style for this period.

    Agnes van den Bossche was likely not a highly successful artist. She only painted on cloth, producing mostly banners, standards, and flags. She worked in the Ghent artists’ guild for over 30 years and received commissions from the city, although it is unclear in what esteem van den Bossche was held. Scholars cite different evidence in order to make opposing claims, and a decision has not yet been reached. Some argue that van den Bossche must have been a prestigious painter because she was commissioned to paint the canopy of the Virgin of Tournai for three separate festivals – a task that was usually assigned to the most esteemed artists at the time. Other scholars point out, however, that there is no evidence that van den Bossche painted altarpieces or devotional works of any kind, which were the most valued forms of artwork. Scholars on this side of the argument also argue that the Maiden of Ghent standard is not particularly high quality. The painting is crude when viewed from close range, and it was painted on linen, which is the most basic fabric used to make standards.

    Agnes van den Bossche came from a household of painters and so took up the family business. Her father was Tristan van den Bossche, a master painter in the 1470s and 1480s, and her brothers were also painters for the city. It was common, in the medieval period, for women who were the children of painters to adopt their father’s trade. Also, van den Bossche lived in Ghent, which in addition to being the home of the Ghent-Bruges school of illumination, was also close to the major art centers of Bruges, Brussels, and Antwerp. Major art centers such as these were more likely to employ female painters because they had large scale markets for art commissions and thus needed to sustain a large number of artists, regardless of their sex.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Allegory Banners Lions Textiles Women Artists Women in Art
  • Geographic Area: Low Countries
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1481- 1482
  • Related Work: Painted processional banner of the Confraternity of Saint Mary Magdalene in Borgo San Sepolcro, created by Spinello Aretino, c. 1395-1400
    Detail of the Flag of Frauenfeld, Switzerland, 15th c. unknown artist. The flag depicts a woman holding a chained lion rampant.
  • Current Location: Ghent, Stadsmuseum Gent, 00787
  • Original Location: Ghent
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Textiles
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Linen; Oil paint; Green silk fringe; Banners
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 100/265/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Lievois, Daniel. "Werklijst van Agnes vanden Bossche" in Agnes vanden Bossche : een zelfbewuste vrouw en een merkwaardige kunstenares uit het 15de-eeuwse Gent. 1996. Pages 77-90;
    Viewing Renaissance Art. Edited by Kim Woods, Carol M. Richardson, and Angeliki Lymberopoulou. Yale University Press, 2007. Page 51;
    Wolfthal, Diane. "Agnes van den Bossche : Early Netherlandish Painter", Woman's Art Journal 6, 1 (1985): 8-11.