One of the great frustrations of studying art history is to learn how many incredible works are lost—but many could one day be found. There are hundreds of works that were described those who saw them as wondrous, but which were only ever meant to be temporary. Well-known artists spent a disconcerting amount of time and energy on one-time-use decorations for major festivities—weddings, banquets, tournaments, victory parades—for which they created backdrops, sculptures, even entire buildings that were only meant to last the duration of the event, after which they were disassembled or discarded. In some cases, such magnificent decorations survive in paintings, but in most cases we have only tantalising descriptions penned by awed contemporaries.
Jan van Eyck’s role as court painter, for example, required his participation in a wide variety of design-related enterprises. In fact, panel paintings were very low on the priority list for court painters, whose primary tasks involved wall painting to decorate official residences, manuscript illumination, and the design of events. There are strikingly few references to panel paintings in any Flemish court inventories, indicating the low importance given to them. In the main, only portraits, kept for historical record, would be assigned to court painters. These artists would more likely be tasked with painting temporary installations for a ducal festival or banquet. In the mid-1430s, Duke Philip of Burgundy held a banquet at which a huge pie was rolled out of the kitchen. A man dressed as an eagle leapt out of it, followed by a flurry of doves, which then landed on the tables of the guests. It is almost certain that designing banquets such as that one occupied much of van Eyck’s time.
One of the great lost temporary works was a pop-up architectural masterpiece. The Field of the Cloth of Gold was a throw-down of wealth, power and codpiece size in the guise of a tournament held between King Henry VIII of England and King Francois I of France, for which an entire village was built just for a few weeks, including a gilded castle.
On 24 June 1520, at a place called Balinghem, near Calais (then a part of England but surrounded by French territory, and therefore considered neutral ground), the two kings met, ostensibly to cement a treaty they had signed for mutual protection against the Habsburg ruler Charles V’s extensive empire, which threatened them both. The event lasted around 18 days, and featured all manner of extravagant banquets, tournaments and entertainment. But the actual meeting was less talked-about than the construction of the place itself.
Peace treaties were all well and good, but both kings saw this as a chance to show off their wealth, culture, grandeur and fine taste. Each called in their leading artisans, artists, chefs and architects and spared no expense in their overt attempts to out-dazzle each other. It was a duel of sorts, but one of money and taste rather than lances and spears—though the tournament meant that they could safely show off their athletic prowess as well. Henry VIII’s tournament armour was decorated with 2,000 ounces of gold and 1,100 enormous pearls. His confidante, the Earl of Devonshire, was no slouch either, wearing a suit of cloth woven with gold and silver, along with his entire retinue. But since the site was on English territory, Henry saw it as his chance to prepare an architectural masterpiece to awe his rival.
An entire palace, intended to be temporary, was built in front of the long-standing local castle. It was 100 meters long on each side, with a 2-meter-high brick base to its walls, topped by a further 10-meter-high wood-framed wall of canvas painted to look like brick. Even the roof was fake—oiled cloth painted to look like lead tiles. It was a hugely elaborate, rather weird, ridiculously wasteful production, mostly trompe-l’oeil, like the set of a film. But it was not merely a façade; it was usable and unimaginably large—10,000 sq. m—for something meant to be active only for two weeks. It was also loaded with art. Grafton’s Chronicle, published in 1569, describes it in some detail:
The foregate of the same palace or place with great and mighty masonry by sight was arched, with a Tower on every side of the same portered by great craft, and inbatteled was the gate and Tower, and in the fenesters, and windows, were images resembling men of warre redie to cast great stones: also the same gate or Tower was set with compassed images of ancient Princes, as Hercules, Alexander and other, by entrayled worke, richly limned with gold and Albyn colors, .... also the tower of the Gate as seemed was built by great masonry... for the sundrie countenances of every Image that their appeared, some shooting, some casting, some ready to strike, and firing of gonnes, which shewed very honorably.
Two fountains inside this pop-up palace flowed with red wine. This washed down an impressive amount of food, all brought along for the event (this may qualify as the world’s largest picnic), which gives an indication of the number of people involved. Records do not show just how many people were present, aside from some of the aristocratic retinues (each king bringing some 500 horsemen and 3,000 infantry, for starters). But we do know that 2,200 sheep were consumed, and 2,800 tents were built to house visitors.
Henry even brought along a pair of monkeys, a gift from the Ottoman sultan, dressed entirely in gold leaf, which records say made Francois laugh hysterically whenever he saw them, and he decreed should be present at every banquet.
The Field of the Cloth of Gold is an extreme example of flaunting one’s wealth, influence and consumable sheep, but all for a fleeting event, all to be dismantled once it had ended. Hundreds of not-quite-so-elaborate artistic “installations” were made for other events throughout the Renaissance, pulling great artists away from more permanent enterprises. On the one hand, it seems a wasteful shame. But on the other—what a sight it must have been.
• Noah Charney is a professor of art history and the author of Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Painting