Retables are among the most remarkable works of art we have. They are, as it were, large, sculpture-crammed boxes that were placed above church altars. Thirteen of the fifteen at the Cinquantenaire Museum are displayed in the ‘Gothic and pre-Renaissance’ galleries; they date from the 15th and 16th centuries and were produced in the great centres of Brussels, Antwerp and Mechlin, which enjoyed worldwide renown. The exceptional retable from 1493 illustrating the martyrdom of St. George and bearing the signature of Jan Borreman represents the summit of this art form and comes from the Brussels ateliers of the Late Gothic. Although it is not painted, it impresses by the realism of the expressions of the persons grouped around the saint.
For centuries, tapestries were one of the major exports of the Low Countries, and the Cinquantenaire Museum has the largest and most important collection of them in Belgium, a total of more than 150. Not all can be displayed and there has to be proper conservation, which is why a different selection of forty or so is put out every two years. In hanging a fresh series, care is taken to ensure that as broad as possible a survey is provided of the different weaving centres (Tournai, Brussels, Oudenaarde and Bruges).
Among the things that illustrate Baroque lustre, silver undoubtedly takes pride of place. A wide range of different examples is assembled here in a showcase overflowing with beakers, drinking-bowls and sparkling and richly ornamented tableware.
Of the many valuable pieces of furniture in the circuit, the stars are the Antwerp cabinets. Their two doors enclose an interior divided into two rows of small drawers set either side of a central section, evoking a structure in perspective. They are manufactured of costly, often exotic, woods and are richly decorated, with ebony, ivory and bone, alternating with tortoiseshell incrustations, plating in gold, as well as rosewood and walnut inlay-work.