Alfred Acres, University of Oregon

title.none: Van Os, The Art of Devotion

identifier.other: baj9928.9609.005 96.09.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alfred Acres, University of Oregon,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Van Os, Henk. Trans. Michael Hoyle. The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe, 1300-1500. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. Pp. 192. $49.5012594. ISBN: ISBN 0-691-03793-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.09.05

Van Os, Henk. Trans. Michael Hoyle. The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe, 1300-1500. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. Pp. 192. $49.5012594. ISBN: ISBN 0-691-03793-0.

Reviewed by:

Alfred Acres, University of Oregon

This book was published in conjunction with an exhibition held at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1994-95. Like most exhibition catalogues it documents and expands the motives, findings, and questions that proceeded toward and from a temporary gathering of works. We learn from the preface, though, that here an initial idea for a text led to one for an exhibition, rather than the more typical reverse. This may partly account for the unusually lucid and attractive book that has resulted, which is guided by an exemplary effort to address a broad audience in a serious way.

Its central aim is to present a history of late medieval devotional objects from a functional perspective. The forty-four catalogued works are approached as instruments of prayer, each customized to meet the needs of various kinds of individuals, such as nuns, dukes, or pilgrims. This functional emphasis will come as no surprise to those familiar with Henk van Os' two excellent volumes on Sienese altarpieces, which examine them as objects shaped by shifting liturgical, civic, patronal, and other requirements. In a departure from the inherent contextual concentration (especially geographic) of those studies, The Art of Devotion offers a creative selection of European pieces that are small, made for private use, and today found mostly in Dutch collections.

The diversity of what was brought together would not have been well served by conventional arrangements by artist, chronology, geography, or medium. Instead, sequential discussions of individual works punctuate a discursive text in such a way that we move directly (and comfortably) from a French ivory diptych of the thirteenth century to a German woodcut from the fifteenth, from a Florentine panel painting to a Cologne "Vierge ouvrante," and from a Dutch prayer book to a Bavarian limewood Christ Child--with focus also on such things as a Rhenish alabaster Pieta, a Parisian gold and enamel reliquary, a silver-gilt Jesueau from Liege, a Westphalian booklet of painted ivory pages, and panels of sundry format from Siena, Haarlem, Dijon, Venice, and elsewhere.

What could easily have become a confusing jumble of places, times, subjects, and materials is instead aligned to convey much about how prayers were understood and offered in the period. Seven main sections are followed by a concise, useful catalogue (by Norbert Middelkoop) of the objects, the superb colorplates for which are paced through the text in effective correspondence with their discussions. "A Treasury of Stories" introduces essential iconographic themes of the period with predictable emphasis on the influential narratives of the Meditationes Vitae Christi and the Legenda Aurea. "The Culture of Prayer" illuminates objects in the contexts of monasteries, urban life, market forces, a single family (Van Lochorst), and pilgrims. "Devotional Themes" limits its scope, wisely, to the poles of Infancy and Passion, moving from a subsection on "The Virgin, The Child, and The Crib" to one on "Blood and Wounds." The fourth section, "New Beginnings," proposes a close to the age of devotional art in the later Quattrocento rise of self-consciously innovative approaches to religious pictures. This case--the assumptions of which invite deeper interrogation than the tone of the text would seem to allow--is made with Mantegna's Virgin and Child now in Berlin, a canvas of such outspoken ingenuity that van Os deems it the sort of picture that was hung on a domestic wall not only for devotional purposes, but also as an extraordinary artwork displayed to be admired as such.

That isolation of a single object prepares the way for the fifth and sixth sections of the book, written by Hans Nieuwdorp and Bernard Ridderbos respectively, which spotlight two individual works that were specially reconstructed for the Amsterdam exhibition from halves in disparate collections. First are the six panels of the Antwerp-Baltimore polyptych, a renowned artifact both of the "International Gothic" style associated with much refined work of the decades c.1400, and of the apparent beginnings of Netherlandish panel painting in the skimpily surviving generation before Campin and the van Eycks. In one of the more specific scholarly contributions of the book, Nieuwdorp argues convincingly that this was a travelling altarpiece for Philip the Bold of Burgundy, based on its provenance from the Chartreuse de Champmol, its prominent inclusion of John the Baptist (who was Philip's patron saint), and the duke's possession of a comparable small polyptych by Simone Martini. The second reconstruction is of a diptych attributed to Geertgen tot Sint Jans, consisting of the well-known Glorification of the Virgin in Rotterdam and a less familiar (probably because less closely assigned to Geertgen) Passion panel in Edinburgh. Both devise original, iconographically ambitious images that together were surely designed to articulate and serve the rosary devotions being promoted by Dominicans in the later fifteenth century. Ridderbos notes the possible patronage of the theologically sophisticated diptych by one of the Haarlem Dominicans with whom Geertgen was associated.

The final section of the main text is an essay by Eugene Honee on "Image and Imagination in the Medieval Culture of Prayer: A Historical Perspective." Here the book steps back for its widest view, far exceeding the objects and period covered by the exhibition, in order to sketch a larger historical outline of Christian prayer and image theory. Much ground is covered in short order, including the Gregorian precept of pictorial instruction for the unlettered, the pronouncement of the Second Nicene Council on the veneration of images, Cistercian and mendicant influences on the forms of individual devotion, several manifestations of mystical piety, the Devotio Moderna, and more. While a newcomer to the material can glean much from this concise survey, the more abiding contribution of The Art of Devotion will be in the intelligent scrutiny of objects at its heart.

The character of that scrutiny, particularly among the four sections written by van Os, is distinctive. Images occupy and direct the narrative with a grace that cannot help but evoke a well-crafted slide lecture--or a privileged tour of the exhibition itself. Understandably, section headings do not accommodate their objects with consistent ease: while the Master ES's commissioned engraving of 1466 for the quincentenary of the shrine at Einsiedeln fits perfectly within a discussion of pilgrimage (subtitled "Religious Tourism" in "The Culture of Prayer"), a rough woodcut of the Stigmatization of St. Francis is a less obvious example of devotion in an urban context ("The City Kneels," also in "The Culture of Prayer"). This is not problematic, since a reader understands the necessarily provisional rubrication by which these fluid and overlapping relationships are framed. The tone of a lecture is most audible when van Os makes his points in modern terms: "Monastic orders suffered identity crises if they failed to produce enough saints from their own ranks as advertisements for the quality of religious life they offered"(28); St. Christopher's legendary protection of travelers prompts an aside that "in Paris, incidentally, there is still a church dedicated to him--near the Citroen plant"(32); and of the passage "Salve, mater pietatis/ Et totius trinitatis/ Nobile triclinium...", it is observed that "here the Virgin is hailed as nothing less than a king-size bed for the entire Trinity."(57) Such remarks equip us to appreciate the spirit in which the report of a vera imago of the Madonna, rescued from three days afloat in the sea, is termed a "watered-down" version of another story of a miraculously saved image.(48)

Throughout, the physical objects remain very much in sight and actively engaged--as was their aim in the first place. Regarding a carved, polychromed Annunciation retable from the Southern Netherlands, van Os explains not only the typical inclusion of lilies, book, and bed, but also the unscripted action of two angels who swoop from the upper corners to draw curtains back and reveal the scene. In this he sees a mechanism eloquent of the work's intent, noting that "art history has paid little attention to dynamic elements like these angels, who greatly intensify the relationship between the image and the viewer."(18) Incisive analysis of such affective, often performative details informs much of the book, encouraging readers by example to observe carefully, with the understanding that not all meanings were fixed among the symbolic and attributive "codes" of sacred narrative and iconographic tradition. Devotional art of the period emerges as a constantly inventive series of bids to engage minds and hearts through attentive, increasingly practiced eyes. Its impulse finds apt expression in a phrase Honee cites(169) as handwritten onto a title-page woodcut of Christ as Salvator Mundi for an edition of Thomas a Kempis's Imitatio Christi: "Ansien doet gedencken" (Beholding stimulates thought).

A small drawback of the well-conceived design of the book is the diminutive scale of comparative illustrations, most of which are literally marginalized in order to sustain due emphasis on the prime objects. A more serious concern, sure to be regretted by many students and scholars, is the absence of footnotes in all but the last essay. Instead there is a condensed list of references for further reading sources at the end of each van Os essay, along with a brief, unnumbered list of quotation sources (with all references keyed to a main bibliography following the catalogue section). While this helps to preserve the dynamic fluency of explanation that is a singular strength of the book, so many important issues are broached and observations made that we still wish for more targeted citations toward related avenues of inquiry.

Lacking these, there is much compensation in the awareness that the text before us, in all its appealing accessibility, is deeply learned and discerning in its absorption of existing scholarship, as well as generous in sharing recent and ongoing studies of the material by the authors and their colleagues. It will come as news to most readers, even ones long familiar with the Norfolk Triptych (Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen), that pre-conservation investigations of that remarkable work in 1993 discovered a plug of coniferous wood inserted into its central oak panel. That peculiarity is here interpreted as an embedded relic of the True Cross, which is shown to shed crucial light on both the program and the function of the work as a whole.

Ultimately, it is for close, fresh observation, handsome illustration, and wise, reliable synthesis that The Art of Devotion will be most often consulted. Like many of the objects it explains, the book is a carefully designed invitation to look intently not only at itself, but also beyond toward the profoundly larger realm it represents.