Carthusian Context: Does An Upcoming Art Exhibition Get It Right?

Something which I often comment on in these pages is how many of the Old Master paintings which we see in museums or study in books or via online images are presented to us out of context. We don’t get a sense of their scale, placement, or use in the areas where they were originally intended to be used. An upcoming exhibition at The Frick promises a rather unique presentation, for those who want to experience something approaching what was originally intended for the art on display, but I’m not entirely sure it will be without its problems, when it comes to understanding the Catholic context for these pieces.

“The Charterhouse of Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus and Jan Vos”, which will open at The Frick in September of next year, will reunite two religious paintings commissioned by Jan Vos (died 1462), who served as Prior of the Charterhouse of Genadendal near Bruges, in modern-day Belgium, for about a decade beginning in 1481. A Charterhouse, for those unfamiliar with this term, is a monastery of monks in the Carthusian Order. The most famous Charterhouse in the world is the Grande Chartreuse, located in the mountains north of Grenoble, France. It is perhaps best known for the Chartreuse liquors produced there, as well as for it being the subject of the 2005 German documentary film, “Die große Stille” (rendered in English as “Into Great Silence”) – which, if you have not seen, should immediately go into your watching queue.

The older of the two paintings, known as “The Madonna of Jan Vos”, was painted sometime between 1441-43, and is one of the last works by the great Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck (1390-1442); it was likely left unfinished at his death, and completed by his assistants. The panel was originally displayed in a public area of the Charterhouse, perhaps in one of the side chapels of the monastic church, but today it is part of the permanent collection at The Frick. It features all the hallmarks of Van Eyck’s work, from the intricate geometry of the tile floors and embroidered canopy, to the sparkling jewels on the crowns and on the borders of garments, to the lushness of the countryside and intricacies of the townscape seen through the arcade in the background.

Frick

The Van Eyck is being joined by a second painting commissioned by Jan Vos during his time as Prior, the so-called “Exeter Madonna” (1450) which is now in the collection of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. This piece is by another great Flemish artist, Petrus Christus (c. 1410-1476), and as you can clearly see, Christus was obviously shown the Van Eyck painting by Vos, and asked to create a somewhat simpler variation on it. While not as ornate as the Van Eyck piece, because it was created for Vos’ personal use rather than public display, it has its own charm, particularly in the brightness of its tone and the rather inviting way in which the pavilion opens up to the blue sky of midday.

Berlin

According to The Art Newspaper, the Frick is taking the unusual step of placing both paintings in a small space, described as being about the size of a monastic cell, “to evoke a bit of these former ways of interaction [with works] and hopefully make people engage with the art of this period in a new way.” This will certainly bring the visitor into a far more proximate relationship with these two panels than would normally happen in a large gallery space. Other pieces in the exhibition will similarly reflect up-close-and-personal devotional practices of the Carthusians at the time of Vos,

While all of this seems a good idea, I do wonder if there’s a slight problem with the placement of the “Madonna of Jan Vos” in particularly. I’m not well-versed enough in the history of these paintings to suggest otherwise, but I would note that most art historians believe that this picture was executed to assist the faithful in their devotional and penitential practices, “and that forty days of indulgence was granted for reciting the Ave Maria and the Pater Noster to the image.” In Catholic practice therefore, a work such as this would usually be placed in a more public space, rather than inside an individual cell. Veneration by the faithful would become rather too crowded if everyone had to climb into a room designed for the use of a single individual. Thus, while the “Exeter Madonna” would be more at home inside a gallery space the size of a monastic cell, the “Madonna of Jan Vos” does not belong in one.

Be that as it may, while there is a long time to wait just yet, this show promises to be a wonderfully immersive experience for those interested not only in Flemish art of the High Middle Ages, but also in the devotional life of Carthusian Spirituality.

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When Your Mom Is A (Renaissance) Bae

When we look at a great piece of art, we are usually caught up in what we might call the “big picture” of the picture. A sculpture of the crucified Christ causes us to think about the meaning of His death on the cross, or a portrait bust of George Washington makes us think about his courage and resolve in the founding of this country. Yet sometimes we should take the time to appreciate the “little picture” in a work of art, and see what we can learn about ourselves in the process. So today, I’d like us to look at a Renaissance painting made up of both big and little pictures, but perhaps focus a bit on that aspect of it which asks us to consider the relationship between mothers and daughters. For this masterpiece does so simply by causing us to compare and contrast how a mother and daughter are dressed in the picture.  

The magnificent, over-life-size Portinari Altarpiece, or more formally, “The Adoration of The Shepherds with Members of the Portinari Family, Accompanied by Saints Anthony, Thomas, Margaret, and Mary Magdalen”, is now in the Uffizi, but was originally created for the family chapel in the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. It was painted around 1475 by the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes (c. 1430-1482) for Tommaso Portinari and his family. Tommaso was a financier with the Medici Bank in the Flemish city of Bruges for many decades; his wife, Maria Maddalena di Francesco Baroncelli, came from another prominent Florentine family (but more on them later.)

There are many fine details to admire in this work, from still life paintings of flowers in the foreground, to incredible levels of embroidery detail on the robes of the angels. Notice also how the tiny landscapes behind the figures feature other scenes from the Gospels apart from the Birth of Jesus. On the left, above St. Anthony Abbot’s bald head, we see the very pregnant Virgin Mary being assisted by St. Joseph as they come down a steep, rocky hillside into Bethlehem for the census, followed by the donkey on which the Blessed Mother had been riding. On the right, we see the Three Magi mounted on horseback on their way to Bethlehem, with one of them sporting a rather jaunty, white piece of headgear that looks like cowboy hat. The townsfolk are gathered nearby, with a child pointing in wonder at the luxuriously dressed foreigners, while one of the attendants asks a local the way to the stable.

The donors, i.e. Tommaso and Maria and their three children, kneel on either side of the Nativity scene, beneath the standing figures of their respective patron saints. The men of the family are dressed in expensive, but fairly simple costumes. It is rather the women of the family who draw our eye, and well they should, for these two Italian ladies are like haute couture fashion plates from the 15th century.

Signora de Portinari is not the curvy, full-figured woman we often expect to see in Renaissance paintings. She is elegantly dressed in a fitted, black velvet gown, with white fur cuffs and bodice detailing. She wears a wide, satin sash around her waist somewhat like a Japanese obi, a black veiled cap trailing diaphanous white silk, and a gold and jewel-encrusted collar necklace that probably cost the price of a house in those days. This is the only piece of jewelry she is wearing in the picture, other than her wedding ring.

To her left and set back a respectful distance behind, her beautiful daughter Margarita is also finely dressed. She wears a green silk dress with laced bodice, trimmed with matching dark green velvet. Her jewelry consists of a gold chain necklace with a jewel and pearl pendant, and a brooch pinned to the side of her cap. The young girl has magnificent strawberry blonde hair that cascades out very naturally from beneath her headpiece like a waterfall.

I think it is not unfair to observe that, unlike her daughter, Signora de Portinari is not exactly what we would consider pretty. Yet she is unquestionably a very elegant woman. If Coco Chanel had been a dressmaker during the Renaissance, she might well have dressed a lady exactly like this. Her high cheekbones, angular features, and slim figure would make her an ideal customer for many fashion designers even today.

In looking at the image of the mother and daughter kneeling together, one cannot help but wonder what the relationship was like between the two of them. Did the little girl turn out to be as fashionable and elegant as her mother? Or are we given a clue by Margherita’s tumbling, untamed hair that she had a bit of that hotheaded, rebellious streak, which we so often attribute to redheads? Did they argue about clothes, even as her mother picked out the finest clothes for her daughter to wear in formal settings, about what the mother wanted her to wear and what the daughter herself wanted to wear – something which mothers and daughters have argued about since time immemorial?          

An open question in art history at the moment is why, when this painting for the hospital chapel was completed, it was not actually delivered until 1483. One theory is that the Portinaris were a bit too close to what was going on in Florence at the time. Not long after this piece was completed Bernardo Bandini Baroncelli, a relative of the Signora de Portinari, was involved in the “Pazzi Plot” to overthrow the Medici family. He and another conspirator stabbed Giuliano de’ Medici, the brother of Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence, nineteen times while he was attending Mass at the Duomo in Florence one Sunday.  Lorenzo, who was also attacked in the same assault, managed to escape, but Giuliano died on the floor of the cathedral. Many of the families of the conspirators were punished directly, or were found guilty by association.  

Bernardo, who fled to Constantinople after the assassination, was later captured by the Turks and turned over to the Florentines. He was publically executed in Florence a year after the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici – in fact, Leonardo da Vinci made a well-known, contemporary drawing of his corpse hanging from a rope. The final round of purges arising from the conspiracy took a few more years, so it is possible that the Portinaris thought it best for the family to lay low for a bit, rather than making a show of presenting a gigantic – and subsequently very famous and much-admired – work of art to the people of Florence.

However, despite the wealth and grandeur that you see in this painting, and despite whatever caution they may have exercised in their art donation, the Portinaris were eventually ruined. Tommaso made a number of bad investments on behalf of the Medici, which caused them to close the branch of their bank in Bruges. After several attempted comebacks, he ended up dying in a pauper’s bed at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, the very hospital for which he had commissioned this painting. His estate was left with so many debts, that his eldest son refused his inheritance, so as to free himself from his late father’s creditors. What happened to the stylish Signorina de Portinari, or to her daughter Margarita, I do not know. Perhaps a reader with greater knowledge of Italian history will be able to tell us in the comments.

What we do come away with in this picture, however, is not only an appreciation for a beautiful work of art, and a document of the styles and fashions of the time in which it was created, but also the opportunity to engage in some thoughtful consideration and discussion. The dynamic between mother and daughter is very unique, something which those of us with “Y” chromosomes can never fully understand. In works of art such as this, both mothers and daughters, as well as those who love them, can see a bit of their own relationships: what they were, are, and will be, in a timeless embodiment of that unique relationship.

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The Portinari Altarpiece (Detail)