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.


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.

Thought-Pourri: More Art And Architecture Stories For Your Perusal

Since I had positive reaction to last week’s round-up of interesting stories from the art and design world, I thought I’d try it again and see what my readers think of making this a regular feature of the blog. So here goes:

Barely-Known Birley

If you’ve ever watched an episode of the original, UK version of “Antiques Roadshow”, you’re familiar with Philip Mould, an art dealer who has managed to turn his expert eye for rediscovering important or overlooked old pictures with a successful media career. Recently his London gallery finished a show on the work of society painter Sir Oswald Birley (1880-1952), who was immensely popular with the American and British well-to-do during his lifetime, but has fallen into semi-obscurity since his death. There’s certainly an argument to be made that Birley should be mentioned in the same breath as other important society painters from the first half of the 20th century. Many of his works are certainly interesting, however I’m not quite sure that I’d consider him in the same league as John Singer Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla, or Anders Zorn: you be the judge.


Light In Leeds

A bit further north, visitors to the Leeds Art Gallery, which is set to reopen today, will be able to visit a “lost” classical architectural space that had been forgotten about for decades. Workers doing demo work at the museum, which first opened in 1880 but has been closed for renovations since 2016, were surprised to find that when they took down a 1960’s drop ceiling, a glass-roofed, barrel-vaulted ceiling soared overhead. The end result belies the often-repeated canard that Victorian architects were only interested in dark, fussy interiors, since this space by Scottish architect George Corson (1829-1910) could not be more bright and classically inspired.


Tanner’s Tones

The work of African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) is probably known to at least some of my readers, particularly his very popular “The Annunciation” (1898) now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Tanner, the son of a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a runaway slave, painted many Biblical works infused with details from his travels in the Holy Land. He is known to have created about a dozen different depictions of “The Flight Into Egypt”, one of which was just sold at Swann’s in New York for $341,000. Tanner’s fixation on this theme stems in part from his own family’s experiences of flight and persecution, which were mirrored in the experiences of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in St. Matthew’s Gospel account, but what really sets these nighttime scenes apart from a technical standpoint is his use of truly sumptuous blues and greens that dominate the paintings, which almost seem to dematerialize before our eyes.

M36028-15 002

More MFA

This week the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston announced the largest single bequest of European paintings to its permanent collection in the institution’s nearly 150 year-history. The van Otterloo and Weatherbie families, Boston-based art collectors, have promised a total of 113 Dutch and Flemish works to the museum, including works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, and many others. Along with this enormous gift, the collectors are establishing a Center for Netherlandish Art at the MFA, which will be the first of its kind in the US, and dedicated to fostering greater collaborative research and scholarship in this area. Among the numerous works now entering the MFA, Willem Kalf’s “Still Life with a Peeled Lemon” (1664) caught my eye, particularly the juxtapositions of blue and orange that one sees in the fruit, bowl, and carpet.


Florentines In Bavaria

In conjunction with a new exhibition and accompanying catalogue, Munich’s Alte Pinakothek has just completed restoration of Botticelli’s enormous altarpiece, “The Lamentation of Christ” (c. 1492), as part of “Florence and Its Painters: From Giotto To Leonardo Da Vinci”, which opens at the venerable art museum on October 18th. The picture was originally created for the somewhat forgotten and forlorn 1,000 year-old Church of San Paolino in Florence, which at various times was used by the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Carmelites, before becoming State property. In addition to undergoing restoration, the Boticelli altarpiece, as well as dozens of other works by artists such as Da Vinci, Raphael, and others, has been newly photographed and studied for the exhibition, using the latest technological methods and research. If you happen to find yourself in Munich in the next couple of months, this is definitely a show to check out.




Beauty In The Banal: Spanish Still Life Painting

A reader recently contacted me regarding what she should try to look at, when she visits The Prado during a one-day stop in Madrid. Naturally I pointed out some must-see paintings in the museum’s collection, including “Las Meninas” by Velazquez, “The Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden, etc. I also strongly urged her to seek out a genre of Spanish painting called a “bodegón”, which I think you will agree is particularly appropriate, now that we are entering harvest season, and the year begins to slide toward its close.

For our purposes, a bodegón refers to a type of picture that became particularly popular in Spain during the 17th and 18th centuries, and has continued to influence art in that country (and indeed around the world) up to the present. Spanish artists in this period tended to focus on simple, everyday food and domestic objects, displayed in a very stark, almost minimalist way. Usually the objects selected by the painter are shown resting on a rather plain surface in the foreground, usually a stone slab, while the background is just a black void. This creates an almost photo-realistic picture, centuries before the invention of photography.

An example by one of the greatest of these artists, Juan Sánchez Cotán, “Still Life with Game, Vegetables, and Fruit” (1602), is one which my traveling reader may end up viewing in Madrid. You can see how the incredibly realistic details of the fruit, vegetables, and birds are made all the more stark by placing them in a minimalist setting, with the end result that the pictures looks almost Surrealistic. I particularly love the detail of the lemons, and have a large reproduction of this portion of the painting hanging in my kitchen:


One of the later masters of this genre was Luis Meléndez (1716-1780), as we can see in the example below from the MFA in Boston. “Still Life with Bread, Ham, Cheese, and Vegetables” (c. 1772) shows a large hunk of the famous cured Spanish ham known as “jamón serrano”, which is like prosciutto but better, resting in a bowl along with some herbs and vegetables. Surrounding it are: a ceramic pitcher holding a wooden spoon peeping out from under a pottery shard lid (a “tapa”) placed on top to keep the flies out of whatever is inside; a wedge of Manchego cheese; a selection of bread, garlic, and beefsteak tomatoes; etc. Far in the back, we can see the top of a bottle of wine. What’s particularly interesting about this composition is that you can go into a tapas bar today, and have essentially the same meal set out before you.


The Spanish bodegón picture has several artistic relatives, particularly in Flemish and Dutch painting, as well as in Southern Italian painting. This is not a surprise, since these areas were, for many years, part of the Spanish Empire. However an often overlooked ancestor of all of these paintings comes from Ancient Rome.

Fresco painting in the early Roman Empire is usually divided into four periods, or styles, which sometimes overlap one another. The 3rd style often depicted a single object or a group of objects against a black or flat-colored background, often on a small scale, so that the effect was one of a painting hanging on a wall. The 4th style was more concerned with a return to a type of realism that had been present in the earlier, 2nd style, but still had characteristics of creating the illusion of small paintings. Here are three examples from a house in the city of Herculaneum, showing peaches, a metal roasting pan with garlic and figs, and so on.


What separates Spanish still life painters from their ancient and contemporary fellow artists however, is their ability to turn a beautiful work of art into something even more profound than what one would imagine possible from a still life painting. Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) is best known as a painter of religious subjects, such as his 13 life-sized paintings of Jacob and his 12 sons, which are currently visiting the Meadows Museum in Dallas, and will later be heading to The Frick in New York. [N.B. And oh yes, I do plan to go to New York in January to see them – more anon.] However he also produced some lovely bodegón paintings, such as this one, which my reader might also see at The Prado.

Yet without question, the greatest bodegón ever painted by Zurbarán was one which is also in The Prado. Unlike the many still life images of foods and kitchen objects, I specifically told my reader to seek this one out. While it bears all the hallmarks of a Spanish still life painting – the stark setting, the detailed observation of the object, the black background, the borderline surrealism – if you’re a Christian, you’ll realize that it represents something much more than a tour de force of painterly skill.


Simply titled, “Agnus Dei”, this picture was painted sometime between 1635-1640. It shows an unblemished, male lamb, its feet bound, resting on a slab and ready to be sacrificed. It does not struggle, but patiently awaits its fate. It represents, in paint, the sacrifice of Christ’s death on the Cross, and also the hymn sung by Catholics the world over during the Mass, before receiving Holy Communion: “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis” (Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us).

While the “Angus Dei” is in a class by itself, fortunately for my American readers, many museums around the U.S. have Spanish bodegón paintings that are worth seeking out, even if you can’t make it to see the best in The Prado. I think you’ll find yourself not only mesmerized by the incredible skill involved in creating these pictures, but you’ll also come to appreciate how there is symbolism to be read into all of them. Though none are as overtly spiritual as the “Agnus Dei”, all of them do give us an excuse to pause, to reflect, and to think, particularly on the gift of life that we have been given, and what we ought to be doing with it.