Apart from just one older Italian work, the period covered by the Ghent collection starts in the 15th century. In the region between the river Maas (Meuse) and the North Sea, this was a revolutionary time for painting, with an unparalleled 'explosion' of the market. This is the century of the 'Flemish Primitives', the name that has been given to the great Netherlandisch painters of this age by 19th-century scholars. The masterpiece of the leading artist of the time, Jan van Eyck, is kept in the Cathedral of St Bavon: the altarpiece of the Adoration of the Lamb, better known as the Ghent Altarpiece. Other major painters of the period are the Master of Flémalle, Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes, Dirk Bouts and Hans Memling. The leading cities in Flanders were Ghent, Bruges, Ieper (Ypres), Brussels and Leuven (Louvain). Antwerp was not as significant yet as it would become in the 16th century. Most renowned painters did not work alone, but led smaller or larger workshops. This 'teamwork' makes the attribution of the paintings sometimes hard.
With the Flemish Primitives, the art of painting suddenly made a great leap forward. In legend, Van Eyck is credited with the invention of oil painting. That is not correct, but he did bring the technique to perfection. The new approach of the Flemish Primitives intrigued artists all over Europe then, and has continued to do so ever since.But the leap made in art was not just due to technical advances, which were many ( for instance, great progress was also made in the structure of composition). The 15th century was also a period when the medieval person, whose whole being was turned towards God, made place for a new type of human being with a much broader outlook that encompassed the world and its earthly beauty, even though this beauty was still seen as an imitation of heavenly perfection. Not all painters (and clients) went along with these new developments at the same pace. The MSK collection also has examples of 'conservative' paintings from this period.