In April 1441, the Carthusian monk Jan Vos was elected prior of the Charterhouse of Bruges — known as Genadedal in Flemish — an important monastery patronized by the dukes of Burgundy and the city’s foremost patricians. Carthusians were revered for their strict commitment to solitude, silence, and seclusion. Their charterhouses (monasteries of the Carthusian order) were rich in works of art, but these came mostly from lay patrons. By contrast, Vos himself, over the course of his nine years at the helm of the charterhouse, commissioned a painting from each of Bruges’s two leading artists: Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus. The Frick Collection’s Virgin and Child with St. Barbara, St. Elizabeth, and Jan Vos was commissioned from Van Eyck shortly before his death and executed by a talented member of his workshop. The Virgin and Child with St. Barbara and Jan Vos (known as the Exeter Virgin after its first modern owner) was painted by Christus a few years later.
This exhibition reunites these two masterpieces of early Netherlandish painting for the second time in their history. Despite their similarities, the Frick and Exeter Virgins fulfilled different functions and commanded different responses from medieval viewers. While the Exeter Virgin was used by Jan Vos as a devotional aid in the intimacy of his cell or when traveling, the Frick panel ultimately served as the prior’s memorial, displayed in the monastery’s church after his death to prompt prayers for the repose of his soul. The two panels are presented with Carthusian objects that place them in their rich monastic context, offering a glimpse into the visual environment of the Bruges charterhouse and highlighting how images shaped devotional life and funerary strategies in late medieval Europe.
Jan Vos’s Indulgence
In 1443, Jan Vos secured an indulgence for his memorial in order to increase the number of prayers that viewers would say for his soul. This meant that those saying special prayers before the Frick Virgin would be granted a small remission from time served in purgatory. The indulgence effectively transformed the painting into an instrument that could hasten one’s ascent into heaven — both Jan Vos’s and the viewer’s.
The following excerpt (translated from the Latin) from Jan Vos’s indulgence letter references the Frick Virgin:
"Wishing that the picture be duly venerated by all truly penitent, confessed, and contrite, we, Bishop Martin de Blija, mercifully grant forty days of indulgence from penance already imposed, or to be imposed in the future, whenever, before the picture, one salutes the Mother of Mercy, Queen of Heaven, Mother of God, with the Ave Maria, or honors Barbara or Elizabeth with the Pater Noster and the Ave Maria and devoutly implores their help."
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; photo: Christoph Schmidt