by Mark Calderwood
With such a large number of religious paintings among those currently drawing crowds, it’s disappointing to see so little effort being made to redress the old chestnuts of medieval art, and the religious feeling that inspired it.
The perception of medieval devotion in particular is a simplistic one: a picture of the Age of Religion wherein the church coerced conformity through public worship, and the laity fervently engaged in religious practices that, at times, bordered on superstition. It’s undeniable that Christianity, soaked in blood and limned in beauty, was the primary shaping influence on society for centuries- indeed, taking religion out of the Middle Ages is like taking the wet out of rain. But this prevailing view serves only to taint our perceptions of the magnificent art inspired by that faith, and impedes a genuine understanding of its actual sophistication.
Part of the problem is that academic scholarship persists in making distinctions between public and private, secular and spiritual, individual and corporate. Yet to the late medieval mind, these distinctions did not exist. Public piety, civic patronage and private spirituality were inextricably entwined, each influencing the forms and uses of devotional art in both the public and private spheres. Just as those devotional objects/habits usually regarded as ‘private’- namely, the exquisite books of hours popular in the late middle ages- contained a purposeful public dimension, so the majestic altarpieces that exalted the sacred space of the church were designed to engage the spiritual sensibilities of the viewer on a very private, deeply personal level.
By the fourteenth century, books of Hours had become the vehicle of both the loftiest intellectualism of Christianity, as well as popular piety at its most basic: abbreviated and easily accessible versions of the religious offices observed in monastic communities. Moreover, their hallmark was their richly appointed decoration. Wrought of costly materials such as silk, gold and lapis lazuli, Hours were such ostentatiously displayed public indicators of status and conspicuous consumption that the trend was satirised by popular writers of the day, such as the poet Eustace Deschamps:
‘An Hours of Our Lady must be mine,
that are of subtle workmanship
encircled with gold and azure rich,
ordered and painted beautifully,
with fine cloth of gold covered well;
and to hold the pages,
two clasps of gold to close.’
This ostentation was not simply crass display: medieval culture and collecting privileged the adornment of both natural and devotional objects, underpinned by the same exegetic philosophy that saw saintly relics encrusted with gems and gold. Precious objects were infused with spiritual qualities: untarnishable gold was equated with Christ’s incorruptibility, red coral was regarded as protective, and so forth, leading to a costly culture of devotional display.
This philosophy is articulated even more subtly in the books belonging to Jean, Duc de Berry (1340-1416) one of the wealthiest and prolific collectors, bibliophiles and patrons of illuminated Hours in late medieval Europe. As a patron his oeuvre reflected late medieval material culture and spiritual concerns; as an aristocrat in close proximity to the throne and as a powerful mediator between rival political factions, his ‘private’ devotional books of necessity created a public image that announced not only his wealth and taste, but demonstrated the piety that was no affectation (or even genuine feeling) but the divinely ordained basis of his position and power.
The devotional book as a status symbol is exemplified in the Grandes Heures, created in 1409. Its enormous size and the fact that its leaves assembled the leading illuminators of the day indicates it was intended for a public audience, rather than the private reading a more portable tome with a single artistic programme would be suited to. Folio 96 in particular unambiguously demonstrates the fusion of public secular promotion with public spiritual spin. Jean’s dynastic arms occupy the same vignettes as his devotional cypher EV (En Vous, ‘In You’). Jean’s bear and swan emblems (ours and cygne) form a pun on the regional patron, St Ursine- as well referencing his mistress of the same name. Above the historiated capital of Monsieur le Duc at prayer, the miniature depicts his self-confident petition to enter Heaven. Presenting himself to St Peter (who takes him sternly by the wrist like a naughty child) Jean indicates his collar of estate from which hangs a massive jewel of sapphire surrounded by seven pearls: symbolic of the vault of heaven and of Christ, respectively, and more subtly of the Christian virtues/gifts of the Holy Ghost. Aristocratic birth and enormous wealth are transformed into virtues, and are his credentials to enter Paradise.
An even subtler dialogue is presented in the famed calendar cycle of the Tres Riches Heures, created 1413-1416. The calendar miniatures form a unified narrative within the larger programme common to books of Hours, and are unusual in their presentation as full page miniatures isolated from text, but also for the fact that for the first time the patron enters into (actually, dominates) the previously generalised agricultural/astrological representations in the calendar.
This entry is no accident: Jean, grandiosely present on the first page of the calendar clearly demonstrates the perspective from which the succeeding images of peasant labor and aristocratic pastimes are to be seen. The seasonal activities are depicted with meticulous attention, and through imaginative composition and colouring lend an aspect of the liturgical theatre to everyday activities.
But for all their ‘realism,’ these scenes are not neutral: they form a directed ideological discourse. The semiotic ‘network of difference’ contrasts the representation of peasants at toil with the light hearted pursuits of the landowning nobility: in winter the duke and his court feast warmly, while the workers who produce his sustenance are shown outside suffering from the cold, inhabitants of irreconcilable milieus.
While this may seem to be a simple reinforcement of the feudal social order, the format of the cycle’s miniatures has a spiritual significance. Rather than simply an illustration of a text, these secular scenes, placed and framed exactly as devotional donor images, similarly invite pause and contemplation in a frame of mind appropriate to a devotion context. So too, the use of skilled techniques such as washing paint over silver and powdered gold to enhance the suspended moments of the composition, creates a lucent illusion that equates exactly with the timeless, shimmering spiritual space of religious imagery. Although worldly scenes, they deftly use the language of religious images to draw a devotional response.
More so, the gold frame and arched vault suggests the architecture not of a window frame, but an altar frame: the calendar miniatures act as religious panels combining to create an altarpiece-like narrative cycle.
In this interpretation then, the calendar cycle acts a de facto altarpiece, proposing the commonalities and feudal obligations between seigneur and serf as a form of contextual devotion, wherein the duke’s grandeur, wealth and position is ordained by God as his due with the implied social-charitable obligation as protector of his people. His presence, by proxy of his chateau in the background of each miniature, refutes the historical moment of a turbulent, fractured France at the time of the book’s creation; he imposes his unifying, sheltering presence on the landscape to preside over an idealised medieval worldly ordering.
Just as the ‘private’ books of the Duc de Berry served a public purpose, the public religious paintings of Flanders, and in particular the works of Jan van Eyck, contained a private dimension that activated spiritual awareness and engagement on a very personal level.
Even in mercantile, bourgeois Flanders during the fifteenth century, religion and salvation were prime concerns for people at all levels of society. Emphasis was placed on frequent participation in the mass and the reception of the sacraments, which Christians believed would ensure their reception into heaven. Worshippers would have viewed the majestic religious works over the altar on an almost daily basis, so that they were engrained in their perceptual landscape.
In the bustling urban setting of Flemish religious art, with its tensions and exchanges of wealth, status, and public benefaction, artistic patronage assumed the status of civic and social ritual. While the distribution of gifts was the medieval noble’s standard method of displaying his family identity, social standing, wealth, and personal generosity, alms-giving was a complementary form of liberality mandated by the Church and practiced not just by the nobility, but by all social groups. Gifting to the Church and the poor served a higher purpose, applicable to all levels of society, of ensuring the salvation of the benefactor’s soul: where nobles founded churches or donated costly objects, those lower on the social scale gave according to their means.
The presence of the Burgundian court in Bruges brought the city’s civic gentry and its wealthy merchants and bankers into close contact with this aristocratic culture of display- and they eagerly took it as their example, resulting in a vigorous interest in devotional patronage. The founding and financing of family chapels and altars in the local parish and monastic churches provided wealthy burghers with an ideal way of displaying their religious and socio-cultural aspirations that overlapped with genuine personal concerns for charity and salvation. Complete with the donors’ portraits or coats of arms, the altarpiece was an integral part of that display, and its dual function manifest in its iconography.
Influenced by humanism and devotio moderna, a lay spiritual trend that advocated a more direct relationship with God and individualistic attitude towards belief that was popular among the wealthy merchant class, Flemish religious art responded to the demand for religious imagery to be made accessible, made ‘real’, articulated in terms of domestic life. Religious artistic thought of the time had grown out of a complex interplay between medieval exegesis and realist pictorial skepticism: reality and symbol, surface and depth were not exclusive but well understood to be subject to a web of overlapping meanings and interrelationships. Artists such as Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck create a new class of religious imagery, fusing medieval religious symbolism with devotio moderna’s assertion of the presence of the divine amid everyday reality into an iconographic language that was once at once utterly symbolic and utterly real.
One of the hallmarks of this language was its articulation of a domestic context into a public space: although located in public spaces, Flemish art subverts the usual visual tropes, placing the miraculous story inside a homely domestic setting immediately relatable to the middle-class viewer. Rather than taking the viewer into a timeless divine space like medieval art, the divinity and mystery of the events are brought into the space of contemporary domestic life. (This is not to say that a contemporary spectator would read the action as literally present in a middle-class scene; rather as indications of a transfigured, sanctified arrangement of reality.) Each of the domestic objects in the scene furthers the symbolic strata, easily discernable to the spectator accustomed to an abundance of visual cues to meaning.
Yet this discernment did not take place as part of public worship; indeed attendance at mass was neither regular universal or fervent, and individuals displayed varying attitudes toward piety and devotional practices just as they do today. Rather, it occurred during private contemplation of public religious works, which were in turn geared to elicit that contemplative engagement.
Stretching more than 5 metres wide and soaring 3.6 high, Jan van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece (1432) is a tour de force of closely observed realism as much as densely complex symbolic iconography. Yet its ambitious scale and overwhelming opulence tends to obscure the subtlety with which it negotiates and articulates the religious sensibilities of the viewer. The closed panels of the triptych depict the patron Jodocus Vijt and his wife Lysbette Borluut, kneeling prayerfully before trompe l’oiel statues of Ss John the Evangelist and John the Baptist. Above is a contiguous scene of the annunciation set in a Flemish home, with Biblical sybils and prophets atop the exterior panels.
Rather than a self-aggrandising gesture, the donor couple actually stand as examples for/in place of the viewer, indicating the bodily attitude of devotion which draws the worshipper to contemplation of the religious mystery. Subtly but significantly, there is no eye contact between the donors and the statues- they do not see them. They are not kneeling before the statues, but beside them, their abstracted gaze indicating they are not literally addressing the archetype but engaged in a more active imagining of the mystery. At the same moment as their relentless realism places them in the viewer’s space, their architectural framing removes them from that space: the intellectual contemplation of the divine enacts/ is enacted within a ‘different’ reality, constructed by their devotional actions.
But looking at the annunciation scene above the donors, van Eyck’s realism seems jarred. Although the chamber is spacious, with a view over the city, the ceiling is too low, and for the intimacy of what passes between angel and Virgin, the space is too wide. The figures literally do not fit the domestic space. The unreality of the scene is strengthened by the wings of the angel, a startling arpeggio of green and orange that visually overwhelms the pale figure of the Virgin, drained of colour. It is clear van Eyck does not offer a simulation of the Annunciation in the same sense as the lifelike simulation of the donors: the scene is deliberately made unreal, and littered with fictional signals such as the sculpture-like dove above Mary’s head, as clues that it is not intended to depict reality, even the sacralised reality of a Flemish interior.
The upper register of the scene is even more sophisticated, its figures caught halfway between realism and sculpted frieze indicating their conceptual meaning. What van Eyck presents is not a conventional image of a literal/symbolic ‘actual’ miraculous Annunciation, but a sophiscated depiction of the mystery being imagined, visualised and intellectualised through the worshippers’ prolonged contemplation of the work. Van Eyck’s visual cues reward time spent alone with private thoughts before the altarpiece; once they are discerned, the work comes alive with dynamic interactions that extend far beyond the picture plane, to engage the internalised religious knowledge and sensibilities of the individual in a way unheard of today. The viewer receives not only the experience of ‘decoding’ a symbolically erudite work of art, but achieves a level of heightened consciousness and spiritual clarity doing so. Understanding the disguised symbolism in Flemish religious art through contemplative devotion reveals it as enactive symbolism, able to galvanise an active engagement with a public work of religious art to yield a deeply private spiritual experience.