For the first time in twenty-four years and only the second time in their history, two masterpieces of early Netherlandish painting commissioned by the Carthusian monk Jan Vos will be reunited for The Charterhouse of Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Jan Vos. These works, The Frick Collection’s Virgin and Child with St. Barbara, St. Elizabeth, and Jan Vos, commissioned from Jan van Eyck and completed by his workshop, and The Virgin and Child with St. Barbara and Jan Vos (known as the Exeter Madonna, after its first recorded owner), painted by Petrus Christus and now in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, will be shown with a selection of objects that place them in the rich monastic context for which they were created. The exhibition will explore the works’ patronage, function, reception, and spiritual environment, offering a focused look at devotional practices in Bruges during the mid-fifteenth century. The Charterhouse of Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Jan Vos will be on view in the museum’s Cabinet Gallery and is organized by Emma Capron, the Frick’s 2016–18 Anne L. Poulet Curatorial Fellow.
In 1441, Jan Vos was elected prior of the Bruges Charterhouse of Genadedal, an important monastery patronized by the dukes of Burgundy and some of the city’s foremost patrician families. Vos commissioned at least four works during his decade-long tenure at the helm of the prestigious charterhouse, but only the Frick’s Virgin and Child and the Exeter Madonna survive today. Though different in scale, the two panels share remarkably close imagery, composition, and fine execution. Each depicts Vos being introduced to the Virgin by St. Barbara within an elaborate portico that opens onto a panoramic cityscape. Both panels achieve remarkable monumentality while incorporating myriad minute details. Together, they afford rare and valuable insights into the patronage of leading monastic figures in fifteenth-century Bruges.
The Carthusian Order is known for its strict adherence to the principles of austerity, silence, and seclusion, with its monks entirely removed from worldly affairs and their lives dominated by solitary prayer in their cells. These ascetic ideals belied the order’s complex attitude toward devotional works: at once valued as vital tools, elaborate images were at times shunned as distracting luxuries. Nonetheless, late medieval charterhouses became filled with sculpture, illuminated books, tapestries, and panel paintings, material accumulation often bolstered by lay patronage.
The charterhouse of Genadedal is a prime example of that phenomenon. In addition to the splendid Frick and Exeter Virgins, another panel can be connected to the monastery: Petrus Christus’s Portrait of a Carthusian at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The portrait, arguably one of the most beautiful created during the early Renaissance, will be part of the Frick exhibition. By discussing the Frick and Exeter Virgins in conjunction with manuscripts from the monastery’s library, sculptures, and other devotional aids, the exhibition will show how such images shaped the order’s contemplative life, liturgical services, and commemorative activities. The imagery of the two paintings also will be examined in relation to the centrality of the Virgin in Carthusian worship.
Despite their similarities and though they were both intended to be seen within the confines of the charterhouse, the Frick and Exeter Virgins served entirely different functions. The Exeter Madonna’s diminutive size points to its use as an object of private devotion for Vos, meant for the intimacy of his cell, while the Frick Virgin was first described in contemporary documents as a memorial to Vos. It was to be displayed in a public part of the monastery, where, it was intended to prompt prayers for the repose of his soul.
The Charterhouse of Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Jan Vos, on view at the Frick from September 18, 2018, through January 13, 2019, will be accompanied by a fully illustrated scholarly catalogue published by The Frick Collection in association with D Giles Ltd., London. It will include essays by Maryan Ainsworth, Curatorof European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Till-Holger Borchert, Director, Musea Brugge, Bruges; and Emma Capron, Anne L. Poulet Curatorial Fellow, The Frick Collection. The exhibition is made possible, in part, by an anonymous gift in memory of Melvin R. Seiden and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
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