Feature Archive

Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych

At the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., through February 4, 2007
Moving to the Koninklijk Museum, Antwerp, Belgium, March 3 - May 27, 2007
By Diane Apostolos-Cappadona
Sometimes in viewing an exhibition such as Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych, one is overwhelmed by the beauty of the images, the effectiveness of the display, or the scholarly argument of the curators, so that it is only upon reflection that one begins to question why is this work displayed and not another, or what was the rationale for this exhibition. Then again, there is that extraordinary event like Prayers and Portraits when what I consider the three most significant aspects of an exhibition -- images, display, and scholarship -- come together to create a visually remarkable and academically significant show, and one that shouldn't be missed!

This superb presentation of otherwise rarely seen (and in many cases, reunited for the exhibition) diptychs provide a series of insights into the origins and uses of devotional art in that part of Europe which today we identify as Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg as well as several northern French provinces such as Burgundy. Clearly one significant element of the history lesson incorporated within in Prayers and Portraits is a re-recognition that this "Netherlandish" region was a politically and financially powerful part of Europe, from the then-flourishing financial and mercantile centers of Bruges and Antwerp to the politically powerful courts of the Dukes of Burgundy (map). That artists, such as those who created these Netherlandish diptychs, thrived in a tandem with the late medieval and renaissance art in Italy should be a natural connective for some viewers, and a revelation to others.

Throughout the presentation at the National Gallery of Art, we are treated to careful presentations of diptychs which provide clear demonstrations of both the artistic and devotional significance of what might be identified otherwise as small or modest "little altarpieces." For example, consider the dual panels by the Master of the Magdalen Legend (see top right), offering us a delicately emotive depiction of the Virgin and Child in which the natural relationship between mother and child are heightened by the gentle curve of her head as she cuddles her infant son, whose own body forms a complementary curve as he clings to his mother's breast. Perhaps premised upon the Byzantine iconic motif of the Glykophilusa ("Mother's tender friendship/love"), this almost private moment between the Virgin and Child is meditated upon by the companion portrait of Willem van Bibaut, thus accentuating the mode by which the artist's early 16th-century contemporaries would have understood this diptych for 21st-century viewers -- a visual explanation of the use of images in prayer as we note both Willem's posture and gestures.

The majority of Netherlandish diptychs on view in this exhibition were primarily created for private devotion, in other words for use either in a home or in the confines of a private family chapel. Almost as if to visually inform its current audiences and to confirm the important of the diptych for religious devotion in the 15th and 16th centuries, the exhibition curators -- John Oliver Hand, curator of northern Renaissance paintings, National Gallery of Art; Catherine A. Metzger, senior conservator of paintings, National Gallery of Art; and Ron Spronk, associate curator for research, Straus Center for Conservation, Harvard University -- have included the Master of 1499's magnificent diptych of the Virgin in the Church and its companion portrait of Abbot Christiaan de Hondt (right). Initially, I confess, the viewer's eye may be entranced solely by the left-hand panel of the Virgin in the Church; perhaps consciously comparing it as I was to Jan van Eyck's earlier and smaller painting of the same name. However once my eye moved to the right-hand panel, I smiled when I noted the curatorial brilliance of allowing us a momentary experience of the religious life at the time of these Netherlandish diptychs, for directly above this Abbot's prayerful hands and open book we see a diptych, composed of an image of the Virgin and Child with an accompanying prayerful portrait, hung on the wall. So this triangle of praying hands, open book, and diptych visually coordinate the lesson and the practice of devotional images; a lesson and practice confirmed further by our recognition that the Abbot is not simply praying to the Virgin and Child but sees the Virgin and Child within the Church, thus clarifying that medieval practice of contemplative reading-that is when one has fully absorbed and made her own the text and its meaning, the affirmation of this activity is made known through a vision of that text!

All of these visual connectives between devotional image, prayer, and text must be placed -- as this exhibition does both in its splendid display and in its exquisite catalogue -- within the historical context that these works were created. The specific reference here is to the influence of a growing series of lay devotional movements, most prominent of which was the Devotio Moderna, or Modern Devotion, established in the late 14th century by Geert Groote and Florens Radevrijns, two clerics who sought to expand meaningful options of daily Christian practice for the laity. In its emphasis on private, personal devotions, the Devotio Moderna encouraged meditation upon the humanity of Christ and thereby, emulation of his humanity and empathy with his suffering. Further, practitioners of the Devotio Moderna and it's contemporary, Brotherhood of the Common Life, advocated the need for Christian literacy, especially among women, so that the patronage and use of these small diptychs for private worship and personal devotion signaled an important cultural and social moment in Christian history.

As we view other diptychs on display throughout Prayers and Portraits with this historical context in mind, then we recognize the growing importance of literacy and female spirituality was part and parcel of this world. For example, the extraordinary vision afforded by Robert Campin's pairing of the Trinity with a Madonna and Child which provides us with depictions of the father and son in accord with that of the mother and son-so a pairing of parental relationships in which, for a brief moment, the duality of God's relationship to his son is made known as he is simultaneously father holding his child and Lord receiving an honorable sacrifice.

Other diptychs not to be missed within this singular exhibition include Rogier van der Weyden's devotional portrait diptychs of the Virgin and Child with Jean de Gros and the Virgin and Child with Philippe de Croy, Quentin Massys's iconographically and spiritually informative pairing of those otherwise, often confused, female saints Saint Mary Magdalen (she has the unguent jar) and Saint Mary of Egypt (she has the three loaves of bread), and the "now-seen-with-new-eyes" pairing of the National Gallery's own Saint Veronica by Hans Memling with his Saint John the Baptist from the Alte Pinakothek, Munich (right). Visual and theological revelations abound throughout this innovative and splendid exhibition which remains on view at the National Gallery of Art until February 4, 2007.

Other useful info includes the fact that this exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, in association with the Harvard University Art Museums.


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