On the Art of Devotion and the Devotion of Art

Icons, Diptychs and Religious Intimacies

Virgin Hodegetria, c. 1400 Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai Image Courtesy J. Paul Getty Museum Los Angeles, California

My recent viewing of two special exhibitions—“Holy Image*Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai,” at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and “Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych,” at the National Gallery of Art—brings to light a rarely discussed characteristic of religious art. While categorized by specialists from church historians and theologians to art historians as devotional, these works of Christian art might be better identified as religious intimacies.

Every special exhibition, like every work of art, has a story to tell, a message to relate and an experience to be encountered. At the Getty exhibition I found myself strongly moved by two icons entitled Diptych with the Virgin Hodegetria and The Descent from the Cross (Constantinople, c. 1400). On the left was an icon of the Theotokos, as Mary is identified in Eastern Christianity, holding her young son. The gentle curve of the Theotokos’ carefully positioned right hand directs us not simply to the youthful child who rests on her left hand, but beyond him to the attached icon and specifically to the conjoined heads of the dead Christ and his mother. Thus, the beginning of the narrative directs our attention to the end, if not the rationale, for the finale. He is born to die, and by dying redeems humanity; she is the Theotokos, the “God-Bearer,” who agrees to bring him into the world, nurture him and then watch him die for the salvation of fallen humankind.

Her foreknowledge is evidence of both the greatness of her grief and her own sacrifice as a mother who will witness the most profound tragedy—the death of her child in her own lifetime. Beginning in the late twelfth century, the liturgical tradition of the monumental suffering and grief of the Theotokos gave rise to special prayers, hymns and icons, especially for the Friday vespers throughout Lent and on Good Friday. Hence the prominence of her placement as she receives the body of her now dead son, as she caresses his shoulder, as her cheek nestles against his as it did when he was her tender and living infant son. The visual and emotional affectivity of these icons’ motifs can easily bring one to tears, to the depth of sorrow and to the sensation of hearing the Lenten Friday vespers chanted inside an otherwise silent museum gallery. The feeling was strikingly similar to what I had felt at the National Gallery’s Netherlandish exhibition. Did the answer lay in what the art historian David Freedberg identified as response theory in his masterful The Power of Images? Or was it more appropriate to Henk van Os’s description of devotional art in the exhibition catalogue The Art of Devotion 1300–1500? Or was it something more, something intrinsic to the nature of religious art?

Robert Campin, The Trinity, c. 1433-35 The State Hermitage Museum  Saint PetersburgThe diptych formed by Robert Campin’s (c. 1375–1444) two panel paintings The Trinity and The Virgin and Childis as iconographically and theologically complex as that diptych of icons. The visual narrative again moves through the life of Christ, but in reverse fashion. The panel on the left displays an image of God the Father receiving the body of his dead son, while the panel on the right presents Mary as a Madonna of Humility, holding the squirming body of her young son. If one were to read this diptych as a book from left to right, then the opening text suggests that the narrative of the rationale for the life, passion and death of Jesus of Nazareth is possible because of Mary’s response to God’s request. Her motherhood is how our salvation came into being. In a pattern of reversal, the colors of the garments worn by God and Mary create a series of visual opposites that play upon the responses of the human eye; his red robe is covered by a blue mantle, while her red mantle is draped over her blue robe.

The visual focal point of the two hinged panels is the horizontal move from Christ’s white loincloth across to God’s knees, which are bent in counterpoint to Mary’s to highlight the berth of her lap, on which rests the unfolded white garments of the now-naked young Jesus as he struggles to crawl. Thus the pained, suffering body of the adult Christ—with the span of his right hand highlighting his side wound—contrasts with the squiggling form of the young Jesus, who appears to reach outside the frame of the panel. Campin’s intricate iconography is elaborate and visually intoxicating, so that the viewer’s eye is drawn into each panel in an attempt to consume as many of the signs and symbols as possible. At the same time, however, there is theological significance to this rare presentation of the parental pairing of the father holding both his son and sacrifice, with that of the more familiar rendering of mother and child. However, it may be the initial, and perhaps simpler, drama of the overall narrative operative between the two panels that causes the viewer to stand breathless before this diptych.

Robert Campin The Virgin and Child, c.1433-35 The State Hermitage Museum Saint PetersburgOften, one panel of a diptych presents a religious event or holy personage before which the individual Christian in the second panel kneels in prayer. Is this a literal rendering of the then-contemporary religious practice or a new mode for understanding religious art? Consider the Master of 1499’s Virgin in the Church and Abbot Christiaan de Hondt. Internal and external framing devices create a religio-aesthetic environment. First, there are the careful curves of her mantle flowing to the left and his to the right, creating an enclosure between the devotee and the object of his devotion. The architectural arcade of stained-glass windows, carved columns, curving archways and side chapels in the ambulatory behind the standing Virgin is paralleled by the elaborate fireplace, table with covered silver vessels and fruit, clear glass window and elaborate crosier positioned past the kneeling Abbot. The decorative urn filled with lilies and other Marian floral symbols is balanced by the bishop’s miter resting on a red pillow. The Virgin, in her role as Mater Ecclesia or Mother Church, holds her son as symbol of both Logos and sacrament, signifying the liturgical activity occurring in the background. The Virgin’s right hand points upward around her child to specify his uniqueness, while her left hand cradles his feet and moves our eye across the panels to the prayer book open before the kneeling Abbot, as if to reaffirm that she holds the Logos, the Word of God. The Abbot’s hands, positioned in prayer, form a triangle with the open book and the small diptych on the background wall, denoting the connections between the lesson and devotional practice.

This was an era of important lay devotional movements, such as the Devotio Moderna and the Brotherhood of the Common Life. In coordination with private worship, personal devotion and meditative images, these lay movements supported the practice of Christian literacy, even among women. Building upon these foundations and the medieval understanding of reading as a comprehensive process of internalization, some images depict the reader seeing a vision of the text, for example, the penitent Magdalene in the wilderness with an open book resting below her praying hands, her eyes directed to what might otherwise be identified as a “floating Crucifix.”

In the Master of 1499’s pairing, the small diptych behind the Abbot (the Madonna and Child on the left panel and a prayerful portrait on the right) acts not only as a parallel to the action in the larger panels but as a counterpoint to the action in the background of the Virgin’s panel; her statue stands at the entryway to the altar where vested readers participate in a liturgical service. This horizontal pattern is significant. It calls our attention to the use of these fifteenth-century diptychs, which like Byzantine icons were placed in both ecclesiastical and domestic settings. Clearly, smaller-scaled icons and diptychs were more appropriate for personal use, while the larger diptychs and icons were reserved for ecclesiastical services.

Standing before this particular diptych, I remembered seeing Jan van Eyck’s smaller, earlier Virgin in the Church (c. 1425) in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin almost twenty years ago, when I recognized the reality of something I had only theorized, the correlation between Byzantine icons and Netherlandish art—as visual objects which created an experience of religious intimacy that led toward contemplation and devotion. The common magical element in this process was, more likely than not, the power of scale; the small size of the works brought to life the meaning of Malraux’s oft-cited dictum “the precious objects we hold in our hands.” Somehow these provide an entryway into the experience of transcending our daily experiences, being struck silent and losing all normative recognition of time and space. This experience is possible through the Netherlandish diptych and the Byzantine icon. “Prayers and Portraits” re-created the power of religion and religious art in the daily lives of fifteenth-century Northern Europeans. More than a curator’s showcase of masterpieces, it provided visitors with the rare experience of seeing, in the fullest sense of the term, the living energy of these diptychs, small and large, in the lives of believers. The development of the devotional diptych paralleled transformations in religious practices that included daily meditation on the humanity of Christ, emulation of his humility and, most especially, empathy with his sufferings. These solitary meditations occurred within domestic settings and incorporated the use of the images as the focus for private prayers.

The Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1399/1400–1464) was the originator of the devotional portrait diptych. This new format coordinated two panels: the left featuring, most often, the Virgin and Child and the right presenting a contemporary portrait, ostensibly of the donor or patron in a pose of prayer. One of Rogier’s sublime, early diptychs—Virgin and Child with Philippe de Croÿ—is a significant presence in this exhibition. Northern art, especially fifteenth-century devotional art, while influenced by the principles of the icon from frontality to the gestural expressions of spirituality, evolved into its own distinctive vision. The left panel of Rogier’s diptych exemplifies both the Byzantine influences and his Northern identity. Initially, the solid gold background and simply draped garments of the Virgin reflect the same aesthetics as the icon, a silent partner in the believer’s meditations. However, the sense of mass and volume in the figures of both the Virgin and her son, highlighted by his exposed torso and genitalia, distinguish this panel from an icon. Byzantine figures are flat, proportioned symbolically, not naturally, and they show little emotional interaction, reflecting a sense of distended time. Rogier’s Virgin employs her elegant, long-fingered hands both to restrain her energetic child and to support the leather-bound book, either a prayer book or a Book of Hours.

These Northern characteristics become more significant and distinct from the Byzantine icon in later devotional portrait diptychs by Michel Sittow (c. 1469–1525/26) and Hans Memling (c. 1435/40–94). While Sittow retains the Byzantine-style solid background (his is black, not gold) in his Virgin and Child with Diego de Guevara(?), his presentations of the human form advance from Rogier’s stylizations of mass and volume. The child’s nakedness is the focus of the panel, and the emotional connections between mother and child are evident in his “chin chuck” gesture and the way they make eye contact. Trapped in the child’s right hand is a goldfinch, an avian symbol of Christ’s suffering during the Passion, especially the crowning with thorns. (This bird is reputed to feed on thorns and thistles.) The finch in the child’s hand emphasizes the theological message that he is born to die and that his mother knows the terror of his fate and by extension her own. Memling’s Virgin and Child with Maarten van Niuewenhove (1487) rests within a detailed and identifiable environment in the donor’s home. The internal engagement emphasized in this diptych is not between mother and child but between the child and the donor. Thus, the individual believer garners a new status through his act of prayerful devotion as recorded in art.

“Holy Image*Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai” was a singular opportunity to examine a variety of icons, liturgical objects and illuminated manuscripts from the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai. This, the oldest functioning Christian monastery, became—through a series of accidents of history—the greatest repository of Byzantine icons and manuscripts in the world. The early seventh-century abbot at this monastery, Saint John Climacus, was renowned for his treatise The Heavenly Ladder. Two significant illuminated versions were included in the exhibition. The first was a twelfth-century Greek-language edition, measuring approximately six by seven inches, opened to a page showing the monks praying and reading before icons of the Theotokos and Christ. The diminutive size was almost irrelevant. An early seventeenth-century Arabic-language edition of The Heavenly Ladder was open to an extraordinary illumination combining Byzantine, Ottoman, Persian and Chinese imagery and symbolism. The aesthetic syncretism resulted in a palpable presentation of the interconnections between the West’s three monotheistic traditions, made visible both in this illumination and in the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine—all within a page measuring approximately eight by twelve inches.

What I am identifying as religious intimacy, evoked by both Byzantine icons and Netherlandish diptychs, may be become clearer with a closing comparison. The delicate rendering of the Virgin and Child by the Master of the Magdalen Legend (active by c. 1475/80–1525/30) provides a vision of maternal affection. An aura of silence and privacy pervades this tender portrayal of a sleeping infant as he clings to his mother’s nursing breast; she in turn nestles his head below her own in a movement of both love and protection. The companion panel of this diptych is a portrait of Willem van Bibau, who turns his full attention to this divine image of motherhood, nurture and love. His hands clasped in prayer at the outer edge of the panel create a diagonal line across the hinged frame, as if to reach out to touch the hem of the Child’s garment and the protective hands of his Mother. As the viewer, then, I stand outside the diptych frames, identifying with Willem as together we contemplate the Virgin and Child.

There were two icons of the Virgin Hodegetria in “Holy Image*Hallowed Ground,” superficially close in iconography and in time, late twelfth to mid-thirteenth centuries, that reveal significant visual differences and experiential commonalities. The earlier icon could be categorized as more majestic or aloof in the facial features and gestures of both the Theotokos and the Child, thereby more typically “Byzantine” in presentation. The later icon presents more interaction between Mother and Child, from enlivened features and gestures to a sense of emotional exchange between them and by extension with the viewer. Nonetheless, each reflects the principle of the icon as a focus for prayer and contemplation, and as a window to a spiritual encounter. The viewer became the prayerful portrait, not in the attached panel, but outside the frame and brought into the religious world of the icon.        

“Holy Image*Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai,” at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, Los Angeles, was organized by Robert S. Nelson, the Robert Lehman Professor of the History of Art at Yale University, and Kristen M. Collins, Assistant Curator in the Department of Manuscripts, the J. Paul Getty Museum. A fully illustrated exhibition catalogue, edited by the curators and with contributions from Thomas F. Mathews, David Jacoby and Father Justin Sinaites, among other scholars, is available from the Getty Center. On the Web at www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions. “Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych,” opened at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and is now on view at the Koninklijk Museum, Antwerp, Belgium (through May 27, 2007). This exhibition was organized by 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 of Research, Straus Center for Conservation, Harvard University Art Museums. Both a fully illustrated exhibition catalogue, edited by the curators, and a companion volume, Essays in Context: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych (Yale University Press and the Harvard University Art Museums) are available. Further information can be accessed at www.artmuseums.harvard.edu/publications and at www.nga.gov/exhibitions

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2007, Volume 24, Number 2