The exhibition To Live with Christ and Mary: the Art of Private Devotion in the Netherlands 1460–1520 presents a phenomenon of Late Medieval religious art that was made outside the liturgy, official worship, or direct Church control; that was borne of an emotional need for religious bond. The exhibits come from Polish state, Church and private collections. Professor Marcin Kaleciński from the University of Gdańsk is the curator of the exhibition.
Geert Groote, the great 14th-century Netherlandish theologian, wrote the following about the need to surround oneself with holy pictures:
. . . all this in order to have a conversation, look for advice and ask questions of Him and the saints; to offer oneself to Him and them, just as obedient household servants do; so that we, faithful in this servitude and obedience [could] also ask for help and relinquish desire; indeed, to live in one house with Christ and the Virgin, make pilgrimages with the pilgrims, weep with the weeping, rejoice with the joyous and suffer with the suffering.
The exhibition features works of art to show Mary’s motherhood and Christ’s Passion in an intimate, but dramatic frame that shortened the distance between the worshiper and the worshiped. They would be held in hand, in fact clasped in arms, viewed face to face. They had a special cognitive dimension, provided a feeling of personal participation in the Passion, “intermediated” in the absolution of sins and guaranteed the advocacy of the Virgin. The art of private devotion (understood as the most noble piety) was an expression of religious customs, trends and practices, and its cornerstone was devotio moderna, the fourteenth-century religious movement which introduced a model of communal life and extra-liturgical private piety with clear mystical overtones. The exhibition will showcase the work of the Netherlandish masters of the Renaissance and the Late Gothic who specialised in painting for the purposes of private devotion, including pieces from the workshops of Albrecht Bouts, the Master of the Legend of St Mary Magdalene, Joos van Cleve and Quentin Massys.
The religious mentality in the Netherlands was especially determined by elaborately illuminated prayer books. Reading them piously every day gave the days their rhythm and a feeling of sanctified time and care for the soul’s fate in the hereafter to the praying person. The primary function of prayer books was to make men and women realise their sinful nature: the prayer practices were to overcome this sinfulness on the way to salvation and allowed the faithful to perform a spiritual pilgrimage at Christ’s side. The Gdańsk exhibition will be an extraordinary opportunity to see a broad assortment of most of the Netherlandish prayer books in Polish collections, mainly from the Czartoryski Library at the National Museum in Cracow.
Early Netherlandish devotional metalcuts and prints functioned in the private sphere and served religious reflection. They would often be pasted to walls, in codices and especially in private prayer books. The exhibition selection features unique metalcuts, inserts in incunables from the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Gdańsk Library and Passion prints by Master I A M van Zwolle. One especially valuable example of mobile devotional art is an early-16th-century tapestry depicting the Holy Family, one of only a dozen or so to have survived.
The exhibition will feature a reconstruction of an interior as depicted in Netherlandish iconography of the Annunciation, the first of its kind, filled with original Medieval furniture, devotional items and everyday household objects. In this special space the viewers can see such rarities (in Polish collections) as devotional figurines from Mechelen. These and other exhibits that were once testament to zealous faith, provide the viewers with a unique opportunity to reflect upon the art of private devotion in the Netherlands in the Late Gothic and Early Renaissance, a fascinating example of religious culture.