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.
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.
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.