Beauty & Truth

Art as Spiritual Currency in 15th-Century Bruges

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Currently in The Frick Collection’s Cabinet Gallery, The Charterhouse of Bruges exhibit sheds light on the intersection of religion, art and patronage in late medieval northern Europe. The Virgin and Child With St. Barbara, St. Elizabeth, and Jan Vos (also known as the Frick Virgin) by Jan van Eyck and Workshop is reunited here for the second recorded time in half a millennium with The Virgin and Child With St. Barbara and Jan Vos (also known as the Exeter Virgin) by Petrus Christus.

Both oil paintings were commissioned by Jan Vos, prior of the Charterhouse of Bruges, a Carthusian monastery defined by austerity despite its close proximity to the thriving merchant city of Bruges. Vos’ patronage of the arts might seem a materialistic departure from Carthusian austerity, but exhibit curator Emma Capron highlights the monks’ utilization of their art to direct the mind toward detachment.

Ms. Capron asserts that the Exeter Virgin exemplifies this purpose inherent to certain meditative practices of the time, wherein physical images prompted imaginings that eventually led to imageless contemplation. The Exeter Virgin is a 7 5/8 by 5 1/2 inch circa 1450 piece commissioned several years after the 18 5/8 by 24 1/8 inch Frick Virgin. Both pieces depict Vos kneeling before the Virgin and Child, with St. Barbara standing behind him with her right hand on his shoulder.

The Carthusians considered St. Barbara a protector of their order, and Ms. Capron speculates the monks’ identification with her stemmed from the story of her confinement in a tower and eventual execution for converting to Christianity. Not only was her loyalty to the faith inspiring, but her confinement reflected the monastic life of seeking solitude to grow closer to God.

That solitary Carthusian environment reveals itself in the Frick and Exeter Virgins, whose similar tableaus are both presented in a well-appointed monastery, a scene divided from the background by a wall with archways through which a landscape of town and country represents the differing and distant outside world. In the Frick Virgin, a tower behind Vos and St. Barbara rises out of the landscape beyond the monastery and contains an idol to the Roman God of War locked away in the upper room, a symbol of Barbara’s victory over pagan influences. In the Exeter Virgin, Barbara’s tower is beside her, within the monastery walls, and she places her left hand upon it to symbolize the closeness of her confinement to Vos’ monastic way of life.

In both paintings, the Christ Child holds a crystal orb with a gold cross mounted upon it, and he turns from Mary to bless Vos. The larger Frick Virgin includes the figure of St. Elizabeth of Thuringia, a noblewoman who became a Franciscan nun after the death of her husband, reflecting the Carthusians’ renunciation of the world.

Because Jan van Eyck died shortly after the earliest possible date of the commission of the Frick Virgin, the attribution to his hand has always been tentative. But Ms. Capron’s study of the painting reveals techniques characteristic of Van Eyck in the underdrawing, such as parallel hatching and crosshatching and use of light and shadow to create sculptural form, which all tend to solidify the attribution.

Scholars have long agreed that, if Van Eyck did begin the piece, then it was someone else who completed it, due to the short time period between Vos’ arrival in Bruges and Van Eyck’s death. Van Eyck left other works unfinished at the end of his life, which leads Ms. Capron to be reserved regarding the question of whether the Frick Virgin was the last work he started, saying that it is, “perhaps the last work begun by the master.” Due to the timing of the commission, the masterful underdrawing, and yet the existence of certain clumsy elements in the painting, Ms. Capron believes a workshop assistant completed the piece, with Van Eyck responsible for the underdrawing and taking no part in the actual application of paint.

While past scholarship has characterized the Frick Virgin as being an altarpiece or a private devotional, Ms. Capron sides with a few recent scholars who label it a memorial. Vos’ commissioning of the piece and success in having an indulgence attached to its veneration turned it into, what Ms. Capron calls, “a currency in the economy of salvation that pervaded the era.” The indulgence ensured veneration of the work in which Vos was depicted and would be remembered even as one prayed for their own concerns, creating, Ms. Capron says, “a complex triangular relationship between the object, the viewer, and the recipient, Jan Vos.”

Seeming to add one more piece of evidence to the Frick Virgin’s attribution is a previously overlooked detail in the painting. Well-hidden in the bushes of the background landscape is a man wearing a red chaperon and looking at the subjects or perhaps at the viewer. The Frick’s catalogue on the exhibit devotes one line to this figure, announcing its existence yet declining to interpret its meaning, stating, “Peering at the scene from the bushes behind Jan Vos is a red-turbaned man, hitherto unnoticed and with a significance that is unclear to us.”

However, it seems probable that this “red-turbaned man” is in fact a depiction of Jan van Eyck and therefore a signature of the Van Eyck workshop made by the assistant who completed the piece, crediting the master for his part in what could be the last piece he put his hand to.

Ironically, the existence of this “red-turbaned man” in the Frick Virgin seems to confirm speculation surrounding another Van Eyck piece that many believe to be a self-portrait. It’s called Portrait of a Man but often referred to as Man in a Red Turban because it depicts a man wearing a red chaperon, an elaborate and versatile hat with a couple of hanging parts like hoods or scarves that could be wrapped atop the head like a turban.

In Portrait of a Man, both extensions of the red chaperon are wrapped atop the man’s head, while in the Frick Virgin at least one extension hangs down to the side of the man’s face. The “red-turbaned man” in the Frick Virgin is not underdrawn and therefore would have been entirely the creation of the assistant who applied the paint and completed the piece after Van Eyck’s death.

If Portrait of a Man is indeed a self-portrait, then that distinctive red hat worn by Van Eyck would be a signature item, and its appearance on a man hidden in the bushes of of the Frick Virgin would be a reference to Van Eyck. Conversely, the mere existence of this hidden figure with a red chaperon in the Frick Virgin points to the hat’s significance and symbolism, seeming to confirm Portrait of a Man as Van Eyck’s self-portrait.

Ms. Capron believes Vos took the Frick and Exeter Virgins with him when he left Bruges in 1450 to serve as prior of the Charterhouse of Utrecht. He died in 1462, and less than 20 years later both the Bruges and Utrecht Charterhouses were razed to the ground during the wars of religion, with artwork contained within targeted for destruction by iconoclasts. It was then that both paintings vanished to history, only to reemerge with broken provenances in the 19th century—the Christus piece in the collection of the Marquess of Exeter and the Frick Virgin in the Rothschild collection. Adding to the brokenness of the Frick Virgin’s provenance is the fact that it was found without its frame, which is where the signature of the Van Eyck workshop would have been, giving rise to the mysteries of attribution that intrigue scholars to this day.

The Frick and Exeter Virgins are on display until Jan. 13 alongside a small selection of works that bring Carthusian art into focus. The Cabinet Gallery, a small room off the entrance hall, is a more intimate location than the Frick Virgin’s usual home in the museum and provides perfect opportunity for close examination of these works. Ms. Capron says, “Having the show in a room of this size, which is reminiscent of a monastic cell, we’re inviting people to look closely at these objects in the way the monks once did.”

One can only wonder if the monks’ close interaction with their art led to recognition of Jan van Eyck in the background of the Frick Virgin and what role that might have afforded the master of early Flemish painting in the triangular relationship between viewer, subject and work of art in the spiritual currency of the time.

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