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Welcome to the exhibition, The Charterhouse at Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus and Jan Vos. My name is Emma Capron and I am the Anne L. Poulet Curatorial Fellow here at The Frick and curator of this exhibition.
The exhibition centers on the reunion of two masterpieces of early Netherlandish painting, commissioned by the same patron, Jan Vos, a monk from an austere monastic order, called the Carthusian Order, whose monks you can see as kneeling devotees in their distinctive white habit tied at the side by loose straps in the two marble reliefs that open the exhibition.
Jan Vos started his career in the Northern Netherlands in Utrecht but spent the 1440s in the Flemish city of Bruges in today's Belgium, as prior (or head) of the local charterhouse, as monasteries of the Carthusian Order were called. The first of the paintings that Jan Vos commissioned upon arriving in Bruges is one of The Frick Collection's great treasures and the panel you see at the far end of the room, the Virgin and Child with St. Barbara, St. Elizabeth and Jan Vos, which was began in 1441 by the Renaissance master Jan van Eyck. It was completed however following the artist's death in June of that year, by an anonymous member of his workshop. The second painting commissioned by Vos just a few years a later is the small panel you see immediately to the Frick painting's right: the Virgin and Child with St. Barbara and Jan Vos, a painting that Vos commissioned from Petrus Christus, the leading painter in Bruges following Van Eyck's death. This painting is known as the Exeter Virgin after its first recorded owner, and from the onset you can see that this monk was quite discriminate in his tastes, since he successively employed the two leading artists in the city at the time. And both panels really exemplify the technical virtuosity achieved by van Eyck and his successor Christus and their amazing ability to convey natural light, varied textures, along with myriad minute details, from the onlooker hiding in the bushes behind Jan Vos in the Frick panel, to the cities beaming with activity in the background of both panels. And every time you return to these paintings, I hope you will notice something different, something you haven't seen before. And I really invite you to use the magnifying glasses located to the left of the entrance of the exhibition to appreciate these details to their fullest.
What the exhibition intends to do is to interrogate the function that these objects would have served for the austere Carthusians and for Vos in particular. Though these two panels look very much the same, they differ massively in scale and they would have fulfilled different roles for Vos. Small and portable, the Exeter Virgin would have been something to pick up and hold up close, and it would have been used by Vos as a private devotional tool in his cell or on his travels, enabling him to visualize himself in the presence of holy figures during his meditations, something that was encouraged in devotional handbooks of the time.
Meanwhile the Frick painting was eventually intended to serve as Vos's memorial, something for a much more public form of display in the church and it would have borne an inscription on its lost original frame that would have identified the kneeling monk as Vos and petitioned viewers to say prayers for his soul, something that was then believed to be the key to shortening Vos's time in purgatory.
And because he was possibly anxious about his prospects for salvation, Vos even obtained from a bishop he knew that an indulgence be attached to the painting. Indulgences were grants that guaranteed viewers a remission, in this case of 40 days, from their own time in purgatory in exchange for prayers said in front of the panel. So that means that the recitation of prayers in front of the painting would have benefited the viewers as well as Vos. The panel made kind of a mutually beneficial offer to its viewer. Incidentally the first line of the prayer in question that people were meant to recite in front of the painting is the Hail Mary and it is embroidered in Latin as “Ave gratia plena,” in the canopy that appears behind the Virgin in the Frick painting, which is a very clever way and quite sophisticated to invite viewers in recite the indulgenced prayer.
The other objects in the exhibition provide further context for these two wonderful panels. To the right of the Exeter Virgin is a silver point drawing attributed to Petrus Christus, which records part of a lost work by Van Eyck, and which clearly inspired the composition of the Exeter Virgin. The drawing really provides a fascinating insight to the creative process of 15th-century artists, reusing forms from previous compositions and kind of creating a catalog of motifs to pull from.
Beside the drawing is a small panel of the Virgin and Child by a Fountain produced in the Van Eyck workshop around the same time as the Frick Virgin. The Virgin's pose is very close in both panels and together they bear witness to the quality of the workshop's output before and shortly after the master's death, and the caliber at which the workshop was operating, somewhat challenging our modern notion of single authorship.
The penetrating portrait of the Carthusian hung beside it testifies to the strong links that tied the monks from the charterhouse at Bruges to Petrus Christus during Jan Vos's tenure. It was painted in 1446 as indicated on the fictive frame below the figure of the monk and coincides with the middle of Jan Vos's tenure at the monastery.The sitter's identity is unknown but it most likely depicts yet another monk from the charterhouse and it is one of the earliest portraits of a religious person in which the sitter is not depicted in the act of praying, suggesting to us that it was probably intended for a secular setting rather than for inside the monastery as the other paintings in the show. It may have been commissioned by the sitter's family in order to celebrate his entry into the order, and invoke his presence now that he was committed to a life of seclusion. It was a way of making him remain somewhat in the household even though he was gone. Since Carthusians were highly revered for their spiritual purity and were quite aristocratic in their recruitment, I think that having a family member in the order would have been something to boast about and worthy of commemorating in a portrait. As to the enigmatic fly that is resting on the edge of the fictive frame, it might be a demonstration of artistic virtuosity that goes back to antiquity when the Greek painter Apelles was said to have painted a fly so realistic that viewers attempted to brush it off. Artists of the Renaissance appropriated the motif in order to flaunt their own skills, showing that they could rival the Ancients.
The case that flanks the Frick Virgin on the left intends to show the wider visual and material culture of monks like Jan Vos. Today painting has primacy over other media but this was hardly the case in the late Middle Ages and Carthusians would have encountered images in a much wider range of objects. To the left is a music book from the charterhouse of Bruges’s former library, one of the only illuminated manuscripts to have survived from there. It shows wonderful signs of use, the figure of the Virgin in the “S” initial that opens the song having been worn from generations of monks touching and kissing the image while using the book in order to invoke the Virgin's protection, a poignant sign of the ways the monks often engaged physically with their objects — again, something they were encouraged to do in their devotions and very distant from the ways that we are used to experiencing objects in museums today.
The prayer bead nearby is an object made out of a very soft type of wood called boxwood which allowed to be intricately carved, as you can see. These types of objects were often called “devotional toys” in late medieval text, which I think indicates quite clearly their playfulness. On its upper hemisphere, this bead, which is the only one that's really connected to the Carthusian order, it depicts the head of the order, a man called François du Puy, kneeling and introduced by the standing St. Bruno to the Virgin and Child on the lower hemisphere, which actually makes the object resemble a diptych. Du Puy holds a scroll petitioning the Virgin, and also the viewer, for remembrance and protection. This imagery fascinatingly replicates that of the Frick Virgin on a miniature scale. When closed, Du Puy and the Virgin would have been facing each other and almost touching, emphasizing a physical and spiritual connection. The outer shell of the prayer nut depicts a scene from the foundation myth of the order. So, quite cleverly this object captures the entire story of the order, from its miraculous foundation on the outside to its continuation under Du Puy’s stewardship on the inside.
The final object in the exhibition displayed on the return wall is a tablet made of clay depicting the Virgin and Child. Jan Vos is known to have owned one such object but it is now lost. Such clay tablets were not coincidentally a typical production of Utrecht, where Jan Vos spent the first years of his career. They were made of a local material called pipe clay, which had the property of turning white upon heating, and were very popular among Carthusians. In fact the only artist known to have made these and whose name has come down to us is that of Judocus Vredis who himself was a Carthusian monk, so it is no coincidence that Vos would have owned one such object. This rare surviving example owes a formal debt to Eyckian designs, notably the figures of the standing Virgin and Child, and I invite you to compare it to the central section of the Frick painting.
So, this is our tour of the show, a short introduction, that really shows that the charterhouse of Bruges, which was destroyed during the Reformation in 1578, was really an important artistic hub. And reuniting some of the objects that have miraculously survived from there, this exhibition, designed to evoke the atmosphere of a monastic cell, pays tribute to this important monastery and to Jan Vos as an artistically savvy monk who led the monastery in the 1440s and whose patronage of Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus gave us two masterpieces of early Netherlandish painting.