One of the two essential museum experiences of Bruges (the other is St. John’s Hospital, which holds numerous works by Hans Memling), this is the home, the shrine, of the so-called Flemish Primitives. Though the "primitives" are displayed in museums and churches all over Belgium, nowhere else are so many major 15th century works (with around 30 of them) clustered as here. Everyone except Dirck Bouts is represented: Van Eyck and Memling, Rogier Van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes, Petrus Christus, Gerard David, Hieronymous Bosch, and the various anonymous "Masters" of various schools and subjects. Here are the bright and luminous tones resulting from the world's first use of pigments mixed with oil, the photographic realism and exquisite precision, the magnificent grouping of figures, the pure and unquestioning religious belief of "the Age of Faith," the painstaking devotion of long months and indeed years to a single painting, with which the Flemish greats of the 1400s so stunned the artistic world of that time.
Rooms 1 through 4: The supreme work (room 1) is Jan Van Eyck's Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele (1436), commissioned for the now-destroyed St. Donatian Cathedral in Bruges by the eminent, white-chaliced churchman shown kneeling in the painting as he is presented to Mary and the baby Jesus by a hat-tipping St. George, his patron saint. The five figures, and especially the textures of the clothes and chain-mail they wear, are caught as if by a camera, while the expression on Canon van der Paele's face is an unforgettable combination of strain, awe and overwhelming emotion; how else would such a figure react upon being presented to the Divinity he had served all his life? Nearby: the only surviving secular painting by Van Eyck (as best I know)—a brutally honest portrait, blemishes and all, of his wife, Margaret.
Six other works are standouts: Rogier van der Weyden's St. Luke Painting the Virgin (1435), since Luke was Patron Saint of the Painter's Guild, the "biographer" of Mary is here portrayed as creating a portrait of her; Gerard David's "diptych" (two paintings) known as The Judgment of Cambyses (1498) showing the conviction and punishment of a corrupt Persian judge, condemned to be skinned alive; the painting hung for centuries in the Town Hall of Bruges as an admonition to the politicians of Bruges(!); David's Baptism of Christ (1499?) with its exquisite grouping of little girls, daughters of the donors, shown in the right-hand panel, as you face it; cup your hand about your eye to blot out all but the little girls, and see what an enchanting tableau results; Hugo van der Goes' Death of the Virgin (1480) the whole suffused with an unusual and unforgettable bluish-white light; this was van der Goes' last picture, painted shortly before he died of melancholia; Hans Memling's Moreei Triptych (1484); and the terrifying, surrealistic Last Judgment by Hieronymus Bosch (1499?).
As the museum progresses through the Flemish repertoire, more secular themes start to appear, including portraits by Pieter Porbus and Anthony van Dyck, as well as the slightly sinister Lord Byron on his Deathbed by Joseph Denis Odevaere (ca. 1826). Later works encompass paintings by James Ensor and the Belgian surrealists René Magritte and Paul Delvaux.
Entrance to the Groeningemuseum also includes access to the adjacent Arenthuis, which shows temporary exhibitions and a permanent collection of lithographs and sketches by Anglo-Welsh artist Sir Frank Brangwyn. If time permits be sure at least to see his vibrant Slave Market, which looks for all the world like a Gustav Klimt painting.