Festival of the Archers


Master of Frankfurt
1460 - 1533
oil on panel
176 x 141 cm
Inventory number 529

In the early 14th century, archers guilds were established in cities across Flanders and Brabant. These associations would regularly organise festivals. Archery contests provided not only useful practice for guild members, but also entertainment. Such events would invariably conclude with a feast where flutists, drummers and minstrels played music, rhetoricians performed plays written for the occasion, and jesters provided general entertainment. This painting is a rendering of the Festival of the Archers organised by Antwerp's four archers guilds: the ‘old’ and the ‘ young’ Arbalest and the ‘old’ and the ‘young’ Longbow. The Longbowmen have gathered in an enclosed garden. At the centre sits the ‘prince’, the person presiding over the festival and easily recognisable by the gilded key above his head. The crowd is swelling and, in the bottom right of the picture, some are trying to squeeze through the gate of the enclosure, which symbolises the Garden of Eden. The mysterious Master of Frankfurt, who immortalised the festival, was given permission as an outsider to participate in the festivities: he is the figure at the centre of the composition, next to the exotic woman with a dog, his gaze directed straight at the viewer.

Bird droppings

During the conservation treatment of the Festival of the Archers in 2005, a rather remarkable discovery was made: an apparent scratch mark at the centre of the picture was found to be a trickle of crow droppings, aimed straight into the eye of a jester…

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