From 20 February to 26 May 2019 BOZAR is holding the exhibition ‘Bernard van Orley. Brussels and the Renaissance’ . This provides us with an excellent opportunity to take a closer look at the 500 Belgian franc note, which shows a portrait of this 16th century Brussels artist.
The 500 franc note, which was printed from 1962 onwards, was the second note in a series dedicated to scholars and artists of the 16th century. It was withdrawn from circulation in 1982. It is in fact known as the ‘van Orley note’, as the obverse is dominated by the portrait of Bernard van Orley. On the reverse we find a portrait of Margaret of Austria , the aunt of Emperor Charles V, who served as Regent of the Low Countries. The note thus makes the link between this eminent Renaissance artist and the Habsburg dynasty.
A famous Brussels painter
Born in the Brussels region around 1488, van Orley very quickly won his spurs in the artistic world. He soon found fame, which led him into the corridors of power at that time. Promoted in 1518 to official court painter under the Regency of Margaret of Austria, van Orley enjoyed her patronage. The court mainly commissioned portraits from him.
In 1527, Bernard van Orley was arraigned by the Spanish Inquisition for attending sermons delivered by a heretical preacher. After he was set free, he nevertheless managed to keep his position at court. He continued to work, producing designs for tapestries and stained glass and also painting his more traditional ‘bread-and-butter’ works, including portraits of Mary of Hungary, who succeeded Margaret of Austria. The 500 franc note pays tribute to him, as well as to his patron and sponsor Margaret of Austria, who herself made her mark on the history of our country.
The 500 BEF note
- General backround
The van Orley note is part of the first of three series highlighting famous artists and scholars. The arts, together with trade, manufacturing and the sciences, have always been an almost inexhaustible source of inspiration for those given the task of creating designs for Belgian currency notes, as they were quite often established painters and artists themselves.
Portraits as a genre appeared quite late on the National Bank’s notes. Currency issued in the 19th century showed allegories and mythological figures embodying abstract ideas and concepts. Belgians had to wait until the First World War to see the first life-like portraits on their banknotes. Those early portraits were of members of the Royal family. The period marked the start of a proliferation of personal portraits on banknotes.
- Artwork and techniques
The National Bank of Belgium commissioned Italian artist Florenzo Masino-Bessi, who had been working for the Bank since 1953, to work on the 500 Belgian franc note. That year also saw a completely new type of printing press being used at the NBB printworks; the new press, designed by Italian inventor Gualtiero Giori, enabled three-colour intaglio printing. Florenzo Masino-Bessi, an artist from Rome, knew how to get the very best out of the new technology. In 1955, Masino-Bessi put forward the idea of having Mercator on the front and Atlas on the back of a note. The two sides could be printed in multi-colour intaglio with the background in offset. The Bank’s Banknote Committee unanimously approved the plan and asked Masino-Bessi to design more plates, with a view to preparing a series of notes which were to be uniform both as regards the technique used and the subjects depicted. The first fruit of this work was the van Orley type note.
Florenzo Masino-Bessi seems to have based his design for the portrait of Bernard van Orley on an engraving by Philippe Galle, a famous engraver, rather than on van Orley’s own self-portrait.  On the note we see a palette and part of his right hand holding a brush at the bottom edge. Saint Michael, patron saint of Brussels, the city where van Orley was born, is also pictured. This is the front side. On the back, the Italian artist highlighted the link between Bernard van Orley and the Habsburg court, in particular with the effigy of Margaret of Austria. Her portrait – painted by van Orley – shows her in front of her palace in Mechelen, known as the ‘Court of Savoy’. At bottom left are the names of the engravers who made the plates which Masino-Bessi designed. The letters ‘SC’ alongside the names are an abbreviation of the Latin word sculpsit, meaning ‘engraved’. The figure of Margaret of Austria, engraved in metal by Henri Decuyper, is enhanced by the relief effect resulting from the intaglio printing method, while the wood engraving method used by Charles Leclercqz for the Palace gives a totally flat effect.
The 500 franc note, also known as the ‘van Orley note’, is from the first of three series of notes dedicated to famous artists and scholars, a series paying tribute especially – as is the case with this note – to people who marked the history of the 16th century. This series of notes follows a uniform plan as regards the layout of the images. The front side of the note is always dominated by the main subject – in this case Bernard van Orley – and references to the person’s native city. The reverse side shows a second character who is almost always pictured with a building of historical interest (in this case Margaret of Austria and her palace at Mechelen) and with a guilloche motif upon which are set the figures indicating the note’s face value. The 500 franc note was first issued in 1962 and withdrawn from circulation in 1982. A total of 135,868,000 notes were printed.
Smal Anthony & Van Damme Ingrid, Le billet de banque belge. Het Belgische bankbiljet, (Belgian banknotes) CD-Rom, Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, Brussels, National Bank of Belgium, 2001.