CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Curator's Project

Experiencing the Wonder of Gouda in the Saint John’s Church

April, 2022

In the past decade, the investigation of late medieval religious culture has increasingly included the sensory and bodily experience of worship.1 While previously, disciplines such as architectural history, art history, and the history of religion focused primarily on the architectural space of the church, the aesthetics and function of artefacts and images, and religious ritual, a number of recent, interdisciplinary projects have investigated how the space and decoration of parish churches and cathedrals framed and activated the sensory and spiritual experience of religious life.

<em>Beleef het Wonder van Gouda</em> in Saint John's Church<br /> Photo: Xander de Rooij

Beleef het Wonder van Gouda in Saint John’s Church
Photo: Xander de Rooij

The exhibition Beleef het Wonder van Gouda (Experience the Wonder of Gouda), which opened on 14 April 2022, is a collaboration between Museum Gouda and the St. John’s Church that follows this impulse by recreating the interior and atmosphere of the Catholic church in 1570, two years prior to its Protestant transformation. The aim of the exhibition is two-fold: it not only reunites in a single location Gouda’s unique, preserved collections of stained-glass windows and cartoons, altarpieces, and sculpture that have long been divided between the church and the museum, but also strives to give visitors a sense of what it was like to experience daily life in the Saint John’s Church during this turbulent era. How did people move through the various spaces of the church and who and what did they encounter there? What sights, smells, and sounds were associated with daily masses, processions, burials, and holy days? This experiential exhibition seeks to replicate the pre-Reformation church interior as closely as possible and provide answers to these and other questions about the sensory, emotional, and spiritual experience of that space.

One impetus for this ambitious project was the exhibition Reunion: from Quinten Metsijs to Peter Paul Rubens: Masterpieces from the Royal Museum reunited in the Cathedral, which was on view from 2009 until 2019 in Antwerp’s Church of Our Lady. This collaborative project returned eight altarpieces from the collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts to the cathedral for which they were originally intended. The temporary closing of the museum due to renovations led to a remarkable opportunity for exhibition visitors to view the altarpieces in situ and more clearly understand the interconnectedness of religion, art, culture, and society in the sixteenth century.

Reunion in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp
Photo: OKV

Missing from the Antwerp exhibition, however, was a clear picture of how the altarpieces functioned within the church and how people interacted with them on a daily basis in that space. The altarpieces from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts were mounted against columns on large, vertical red panels that brought to mind the painted walls of a museum gallery space dedicated to Renaissance and Baroque paintings. Thus, despite being displayed inside a church interior, the display still clung tightly to conventions for exhibiting painted altarpieces in a museum, as isolated, two-dimensional panels against a flat, monochromatic surface. The original multifaceted, three-dimensional space of the altarpiece, altar, and corresponding equipment, namely the altar stone and mensa, curtains, candles, censers, chalices, and liturgical textiles, were not displayed. Since the altarpieces were shown in a fully opened state and secured against columns, their mobility was also not readily apparent to visitors. Additionally, in Antwerp there was no indication of the sensory dimension of the sixteenth-century church interior: the pungent odors of incense, herbs, and pomanders; the stench of unburied corpses; the toll of altar bells; the incessant barking of dogs in response to the shouts of the church-employed dog-whippers; and the chaotic hum of multiple simultaneous masses and throngs of crowded bodies. With these lacunae in mind, the organizers of the exhibition in Gouda aimed to go a step further and not only reunite the altarpieces in the Saint John’s Church, but also create a multidimensional experience that places the visitor in the shoes of a sixteenth-century individual who has crossed the threshold from the city street to the church interior.

A museum-led exhibition of this kind is, as far as I am aware, unprecedented. A number of recent academic research projects have explored late medieval religious spaces and worship through enactments. Among these are The Experience of Worship project led by John Harper of Bangor University in the United Kingdom from 2009 – 2017.2 The project’s interdisciplinary research team staged liturgical enactments of masses, processions, and other activities of worship as well as reconstructions of church organs and other artefacts. Similarly, an enactment of a fifteenth-century mass in a medieval parish church on Gotland Island in Sweden staged in 1989, was recently the subject of analysis by conservation heritage specialist Gunnar Almevik.3 The “Virtual Musical Heritage” project is another university-based research group that partners with cultural institutions to design digital recreations of acoustic spaces, such as those in late medieval churches.4 Yet, while these initiatives share some of the same aims as the Gouda exhibition and both rely on visitor/viewer experience as a means to conveying and generating information about late medieval religious life, their closed enactments and focus on an academic audience are limiting. By contrast, the Gouda exhibition is intended for a broad and diverse public, who will themselves participate in the enactment as they proceed through the various spaces of the church.

Mounting such an ambitious exhibition was not without challenges and dilemmas. First and foremost was the challenge of striking a balance between pursuing historical authenticity on the one hand and reconstructing abstract bodily and sensory experiences that are difficult to conceptualize in modern terms on the other. Negotiating between precision and approximation was a cornerstone of the decision-making process. In preparation for the exhibition, a team of academic and curatorial researchers pursued questions concerning the spatial orientation and furnishing of the church, the rituals that took place there, and the individuals who participated in various religious activities. Simultaneously, a team from the experiential concept design firm XPEX5 was tasked with developing a multi-dimensional narrative of life in the Saint John’s Church in 1570 based on the researchers’ findings. During the process of designing the exhibition, these two parties met routinely to determine how to translate archival and visual evidence into an engaging and multisensory experience of the church interior.

Beleef het Wonder van Gouda in Saint John’s Church
Photo: Xander de Rooij

Ultimately, the research and design teams concluded that identifying a single year in which to focus the exhibition would create necessary boundaries for both research and exhibition narratives. The year 1570 was selected because it was far enough after the rebuilding and refurbishing following the devastating fire of 1552 that the church would have been close to its current floor plan and most of the altars, altarpieces, and other furnishings would have been present, and yet still prior to the Protestant transformation of 1572.

Moreover, by focusing attention on a single year, a complete annual liturgical calendar could be studied and a delimited group of individuals associated with the church during that period could be identified.

After settling on a year, the exhibition team had to decide how “authentic” they wanted to make their narrative. Early on in the process, three potential levels of authenticity were presented by the content working group. The first, and strictest, level required that the exhibition contain only verifiable or highly probable information and events from the year 1570. The second level allowed for verifiable or probable information related to historical figures and events from a slightly earlier or later date, ideally not more than a generation removed. Finally, the third level permitted the use of probable information and facts related to completely fictive characters. The research and design teams ultimately opted to avoid the third scenario and aim for the first whenever possible. Incorporating the accounts of individuals from the archival record, even if slightly earlier or later than 1570, was deemed more appropriate to the exhibition’s historical basis than using figures who were figments of the imagination. These deviations could also be communicated to visitors via a second level of the audio tour, which goes deeper into detail than the first, more summary level.

Selecting which objects to include in the exhibition prompted additional questions about authenticity. While the stained glass windows are permanently in the church and the altarpieces can be transported from a few hundred meters away in Museum Gouda, there are a number of objects from the sixteenth-century church interior that are no longer available, yet are essential to recreating the original context and atmosphere. Showing an altarpiece as part of a complete altar assemblage was essential to the exhibition concept. The decision was therefore made to display each altarpiece above a simple constructed altar, with one of the altars being fully furnished with corresponding objects, such as censers, curtains, and altar bells.

<em>Beleef het Wonder van Gouda</em> in Saint John's Church<br/>Photo: Xander de Rooij

Beleef het Wonder van Gouda in Saint John’s Church
Photo: Xander de Rooij

Working closely with the researchers, the design team created five “scenes”, each of which was unique to one of the five altarpieces and included a narrative comprised of relevant historical figures and objects. A female gravedigger, the son of the famous glass painter Wouter Crabeth, an elite woman in prayer, a priest conducting a mass, and a members of the local carpenter’s guild are some of the figures around whom these scenes were designed. The fifth and final scene before visitors approach the high altar features a priest and is constructed around Anthonie van Blocklandt’s monumental altarpiece depicting the Martyrdom of Saint James the Great (ca. 1570). The complete altar ensemble includes altar curtains and bells, candles, a missal, a chalice, a censer, and liturgical vestments. The researchers and designers had to decide whether or not to approximate these objects by means of either museum objects or reconstructions. Ultimately, the decision was made to avoid the use of modern reconstructions and use objects dating from the same period, thus, ca. 1570. However, due to security and climate concerns, a compromise had to be made. It was decided that objects from Museum Gouda and other collections would be displayed adjacent to the altar in a glass vitrine, while the altar itself would be adorned with 3-D replicas of these objects made by students from MBO-Rijnland.

Once the object list was finalized, the daunting task of determining how late medieval religious spaces and rituals were experienced and how to convey that to visitors remained. While archival and material evidence provide a framework for determining what took place, where, and involving whom, and what the space looked like, these sources cannot reveal to us the sensory, bodily, and emotional experiences of churchgoers in the sixteenth century. Moreover, senses have their own cultural history and when investigating the sensory experience of the sacred in a vastly different era, it is crucial to take into account the limitations of our current sense faculties when trying to understand the various associations made in the past.6 In different times and places, people understood and reacted to the senses differently. In the period in question, people frequently used strong odors, from pomanders for example, as a means of protection against the plague and other illnesses.7 Understanding the significance of past associations with different smells and interpretations of the senses was a cornerstone of the brilliant exhibition Fleeting – Scents in Colour at the Mauritshuis in The Hague (2021), which provided inspiration for thinking about how to convey the powerful impact of smell in the space of the church. Early on in the exhibition planning, it was decided that not only the visual aspects of the interior of the sixteenth-century Saint John’s Church needed to be recreated for visitors, but also other sensory experiences such as the sounds and smells that accompanied masses, processions, and burials needed to be conveyed in a tangible way.

The recent turn in academic cultural studies to bodily and sensory experience as valid topics and to enactments and reconstructions as viable research methods paved the way for experiential exhibitions such as those in The Hague and Gouda. Wendy Wauters’ recent doctoral dissertation sheds new light on how the sacred was sensed by examining liturgical spaces and objects in the context of the Antwerp Cathedral of Our Lady from ca. 1450 to 1566.8 In preparation for enactments of church rituals, The Experience of Worship Project at Bangor University researched such aspects as the spatial configuration, color schemes, and acoustics of the church; the body language of characters from different social classes, and the textures of fabrics used for costumes and ornament.

Gunnar Almevik recently showed how such enactments enable the merging of scientific research (archival, material-technical, historical) and the imagination. Almevik notes the potential usefulness of time-geography analysis and space-syntax analysis – both typically reserved for the social sciences, and particularly in architectural or anthropological investigations, but rarely used in cultural historical studies.9 He applied these approaches to the case study of Sweden’s Endre Church, where the enactment of a late medieval mass was filmed and analysed. Time-geography analysis examines the togetherness of people and things clustered in the same physical space. Space-syntax analysis utilizes the ‘social logic of space.’ In the Endre case study, the church was hypothetically refurbished inside and these methods were applied to examine how mass participants moved through and interacted in the church and identify how and where people were connected and segregated and also how light, noise, smell moved through and settled in this space. In describing this process, Almevik notes that, “neither method can recreate the embodied sensory  experience of reenactment, but combining methods can show interrelations between people, buildings, artefacts and reestablish a momentary thereness like a diorama.”10

Just as these enactments bring multiple senses and the body into play simultaneously, so too can a museum exhibition, which offers an alternative path to cognition and education.11 The detailed reconstruction of spatial context, clothing, artefacts, and sensory experience in the Gouda exhibition follows, in many ways, the precedent set by the aforementioned research projects. Directed at a much broader audience, it offers an additional way of understanding how sacred spaces, objects, and rituals were experienced by people in the past. The exhibition itself is the enactment in this case, and it is possible for each visitor to experience and interpret it in their own manner.

Nadia Groeneveld-Baadj is Curator of Old Masters at the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch. With the support of a fellowship from Vereniging Rembrandt she was involved in the preparations for this exhibition as a Curatorial Research Associate at Museum Gouda in 2021. She has been a member of CODART since 2020.

1 See, for example, Wendy Wauters, “Smelling Disease and Death in the Antwerp Church of Our Lady, c. 1450-1559,” Early Modern Low Countries 5(1): 2021, 17-39.; Wauters, “The Stirring of the Religious Soundscape. The Auditory Experience in the Antwerp Church of Our Lady (c.1450-1566) and an Iconological Analysis of the Altar Bell”, in Christian Discourses of the Holy and the Sacred from the 15th to the 17th Century (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2020), 221-260; Beth Williamson, “Sensory Experience in Medieval Devotion: Sound and Vision, Invisibility and Silence,” Speculum 88 1 (2013), 1–43; Religion and the Senses in Early Modern Europe, eds. Wietse de Boer and Christine Göttler (Leiden: Brill, 2013); Albertina Nugteren, “Sensing the ‘Sacred’? Body, Senses and Intersensoriality in the Academic Study of Ritual,” Jaarboek voor Liturgieonderzoek 29: 2013, 49-65.
3 Gunnar Almevik, “Perusing space-time in medieval sacred architecture Paths, bundles, and constraints in Endre church during a fifteenth-century mass,” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 99 (4): 2017, 360-379.
6 Nugteren 56-58.
7 Wauters, “Smelling Death,” 10-11, 15-17.
8 Wauters, “De beroering van de religieuze ruimte. De belevingswereld van kerkgangers in de Antwerpse Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, ca. 1450-1566,” PhD diss., KU Leuven, 2021.
9 Almevik, 363.
10 Almevik, 377.
11 Nugteren, 56.