On June 6, 1443, the Consell de Cent of Barcelona (government of the city) agreed to hire the best painter in the city to carry out an altarpiece that decorated the Chapel of the House of the City. The artist chosen was the Valencian Lluís Dalmau, who lived in Barcelona at that time.
New times for medieval artists
The altarpiece was completed in 1445, and is one of the few signed Gothic works, which allows us to know its author. In the 15th century, the situation of the artists had changed. Now they were no longer nomads, they settled in the cities creating art workshops and artistic lineages; they were professionals and they wanted to be recognized as creators of their works.
Usually, the authorship of the pieces was established by the contract that was signed at the time of commissioning the work. Although this painting order has not been kept, we have a transcription of it in the record book. From the thirteenth century, when the notary files were constituted, transcriptions of such contracts were made. At first, just a reference of the contract were mentioned, but from the 14th century onwards, a protocol was established that reproduced the entire content.
And that helps us, and much, to know the details that were established.
Everything by contract
Contracts were meticulous, specifying details such as author, price, start and end dates, materials, colors, etc.
From the contract that was made to paint the Virgin of the Consellers, we know that it was agreed that the subject to be developed was a Sacra Conversazione. This meant that the paying donor who had to be portrayed and to be clearly represented. Thus, we can affirm that the faces of the 5 members of the Council of the city that are represented in work are true portraits of all of them. Otherwise, they would have protested at the time of the assignment. They appear dressed in official clothes and accompanied by Saint Eulalia, the patron saint of the city, and Saint Andrew. In fact, St. Andrew’s Day were the day on which the new members of the Council were elected.
It was also established that the altarpiece would be made on Dutch oak wood, the highest quality at the time. Also, as it was made then, the work had to be golden. But this gilding shoul be made with florin from Florence, because the currency of the Republic of Florence guaranteed the purity of gold. It was also indicated lapis lazuli, the most prestigious and more expensive blue pigment, should be used to paint the mantle of Mary.
The Virgin of Consellers is completely in oil painting. This was a new technique in Catalonia. But Dalmau dominated it perfectly. In fact, it was a technique that was developed mostly in Flanders, especially by Jan van Eyck. Dalmau had traveled to Flanders in 1431. King Alfonso the Magnanimous had sent him to buy tapestries, so he must have known the techique of the time.
And if you don’t like it, you claim
When the work was delivered, everyone was surprised. But not everyone was happy. One of the condicions set out in the contract had not been fulfilled. The golden background that was so appreciate by catalan bourgeois at the time did not go anywhere. This led to a lawsuit by the Council against the artist. To defend himself, Lluis Dalmau argued that he had painted a landscape on the windows instead of gilding the background, because the contract specifies that the altarpiece should be made by the best artist in Barcelona, and therefore, the artist must do what is best. And he won.
This magnificent altarpiece is kept in the Gothic art collection of the MNAC. Despite its artistic significance, unfortunately the style has not continuity and the new art trend from the north of Europe did not prevail until almost 50 years later.