Carthusian devotional art inspires exhibition at The Frick Collection in New York

“The Charterhouse of Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Jan Vos” at The Frick Collection. Photo courtesy of The Frick Collection

The glories of God have always inspired artists, and art is a powerful way of spreading his word. In earlier centuries, when many faithful couldn’t read and few understood Latin, paintings, sculptures, and stained glass windows brought the Gospels and saints’ lives to believers.

The Church needs art. … In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. … Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colors, shapes, and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. (Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists, 10, 12)  

Two rare and spectacular paintings from the 1400s, designed to focus and enhance prayer, form the centerpiece of The Charterhouse of Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus and Jan Vos at The Frick Collection in New York through Jan. 13. For only the second time in their history, the Frick’s Virgin and Child with St. Barbara, St. Elizabeth, and Jan Vos, begun by Jan van Eyck in the final year of his life and completed by his workshop, and The Virgin and Child with St. Barbara and Jan Vos, by Petrus Christus, are reunited.

Both were commissioned by Jan Vos, the prior of a Carthusian monastery (called charterhouses). Both were painted by renowned artists of their time. Both were intended as devotional works. Together with a collection of other paintings, sculptures, and manuscripts that complete the Frick’s presentation, they give a glimpse into the lives and practices of the Carthusians.

The Carthusians, founded in 1084 by St. Bruno of Cologne, were a wealthy, but sober order. While nobility was a requirement for entry, a Carthusian charterhouse was a place of contemplation and distance from the world. Monks led lives of solitude and silence, eating and even praying mostly alone. However, as the exhibition shows, rich decoration and art was plentiful.

The paintings by van Eyck and Christus depict Jan Vos, the Carthusian prior, being presented to the Virgin and Child. In both, Vos kneels in devotion, facing right. In both, the Virgin is richly dressed in medieval garb. In each painting, the city of Bruges is visible outside the open cloister walls.

“Though different in scale, the imagery is closely related, depicting the kneeling Jan Vos introduced to the Virgin by female saints,” said Emma Capron, the exhibition curator. “Looking closely at these panels you experience a sense of genuine visual delight. They’re full of minute details that offer endless possibilities for exploration and surprises.”

The paintings are small. The van Eyck is about the size of an open textbook, and the Christus measures only 7.5 by 5.5 inches. With jewel-like tones of sapphire, ruby, and gold, the two paintings are marvels of color, composition, symbolism, and almost impossible detail. In a river, visible through the windows of the van Eyck scene, are two swans with elegantly curved necks. Each is smaller than a grain of rice. The rich decorative banner behind the Virgin in van Eyck’s painting has lilies woven in, a Marian symbol of purity. Each tiny lily stem is coiled through a scroll embroidered with “Ave gra ple a” shorthand for “Ave [Maria] gra[tia] ple[n] a” the first line of the Hail Mary.

St. Barbara presents Vos, dressed in Carthusian robes, to the Virgin and Christ Child. She is identified by her symbol, the tower where her father imprisoned her. She chose a cell for the sake of Christ, as did Vos. St. Elizabeth, dressed in her Franciscan habit, renounced a life of wealth (her attribute was three jeweled crowns) to join her order, as Prior Vos did.

Though richly detailed, symbolic and beautiful, the paintings, Capron pointed out “were not created only for their aesthetic appeal but also to fulfill particular functions.” The van Eyck painting was commissioned as a memorial, blessing the prior when viewers prayed in its presence. The Christus panel, Capron said, “was used by Jan Vos as a devotional aid in his cell or on his travels. He could have easily picked it up and held it close during his meditations.”

The gallery in the museum where the exhibition is displayed is designed to recall a monk’s cell. A painted hymnal, actually used in the Bruges monastery, along with an intricately carved prayer bead bearing symbols of the Carthusians are included. Also on view is a stunningly life-like portrait by Petrus Christus of a young Carthusian monk. Having noble blood meant that most members of the order came from wealth. Their belongings, though sparse, were of the highest quality.

The greatest painter of his day, Jan van Eyck is widely credited with inventing oil painting. Details so perfect they look like photographs are a hallmark of his work. The folds and textures of softly rippling velvet and crisp white cotton evoke the presence of those he painted.

The jewels that adorn the Virgin’s robes sparkle where light hits them; the pearls reflect a soft luster. They’re smaller than the heads of pins. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci later incorporated his techniques in their work. Enlarging lenses are provided at the museum to better see the exquisitely fine renderings of all the works. The sense of wonder that touches the spirit is magnified by the artistry.

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