The Prophets of the Town Hall

Attributed to the "Master of the Hakendover Altarpiece" and his studio.
Early 15th century

This Avesnes limestone series was intended to decorate the portal on the ground floor of the Brussels Town Hall tower. It was sculpted as part of the first phase of the Town Hall's construction, which lasted from 1401 to approximately 1421. It depicts eight prophets, who can be recognised from the phylactery (scrolls that hold their messages) they are holding in their hand. Each one was placed under a sculpted niche and inserted into the arched voussoir of the porch.
To protect these eight sculptures, which are of remarkable artistic and historic quality, they were replaced in situ in the mid-19th century by copies made during the restoration of the Town Hall. However, this new version is not polychrome like the original.

The prophets originally flanked five statues placed on the tympanum of the porch, including those of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula, the patron saints of the city. These two statues have not survived, and those created to replace them in the 19th century are neo-Gothic reinventions.
The prophets are depicted seated, six of them on a throne with back- and armrests and the other two on a simple bench. They are calm and fully absorbed in their own thoughts, symbolising wisdom. The beard worn by seven of them also relates to this quality, which is associated with the statue of a mature man.

These sculptures illustrate the International Gothic style which, at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries, was characterised by the diffusion of comparable models and themes throughout Europe. The type of prophet depicted as a bearded older man with a phylactery is also fairly widespread. The elegance of the poses and the sophisticated drapery are also typical. However, an original regional transposition can be seen here, marked by the individuated poses and the expressive, natural-looking faces. This is even more striking in the only younger character, who has no beard and is sitting with crossed legs, his head and shoulders covered with an almuce whose hood is falling to the side. In his hand, he is holding an inkpot, while on his wrist hangs a case (probably containing styluses) and a small purse (no doubt containing the pigments needed for illuminations). It is the very image of a clerk, as could be found at the time.

By comparison, this Brussels version of the theme of the prophets has been attributed to a local studio whose name is not known, although it is famous for producing an accomplished sculpted wooden altarpiece for the village of Hakendover (near Tienen). The style of this studio reveals the influence of André Beauneveu, a Hainaut sculptor from the second half of the 14th century, who was a pioneer in his treatment of volumes and his taste for realism.  An in-depth stylistic study also reveals that the eight sculptures were created by several different people.

The statues were sanded down in the 19th century but still show traces of their original polychrome. A scientific study by Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) allowed a reconstruction of the statue, which was highly sophisticated. The characters originally had red lips and a very light pink complexion, with dark detailing for the pupils, the contours of the eyes, the beards and the hair. The robes, cloaks and hats were red, blue, green or golden, while the thrones and benches were blue-grey.

The texts of the phylacteries were originally black on a white background but have since been erased. In comparison with sculptures of an identical theme and time in the Town Hall in Cologne, we can hypothesise that these were recommendations for the practice of good government. This also corresponds to the choice of the theme of prophets, symbolising wisdom. This quality was expected of the seven aldermen, who were chosen for an annual mandate from the seven "lineages" (clans of the major local aristocratic families) and exercised authority in the city in the early 15th century.

©V. Everarts