Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 6, 2010
John R. Decker The Technology of Salvation and the Art of Geertgen tot Sint Jans Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009. 182 pp.; 5 color ills.; 19 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (9780754664536)

For decades, the art of the northern Netherlands has received far less attention than that of its southern counterpart. Even the study of early Netherlandish painting has focused almost exclusively on visual imagery produced in Flanders or by Flemish artists. A new trend, however, seems to be emerging. In 2008, the Museum Boijmans-van Beuningen in Rotterdam held a major exhibition, Vroege Hollanders, focusing on late fifteenth-century Dutch painting. The last exhibition devoted to this imagery, Middeleeuwse kunst der Noordelijke Nederlanden, had occurred in 1958.

John Decker’s The Technology of Salvation and the Art of Geertgen tot Sint Jans offers a most welcomed addition to the study of art from the northern Netherlands. Rather than concentrate on questions of attribution or dating, as the exhibition did, his text examines how pictures of this Haarlem painter participated in the craft of religious devotion. For Decker, these images did not merely reflect theological ideas nor did they simply serve as visual catechisms of the sacraments for the illiterate. They offered pious viewers opportunities for cultivating their souls in preparation for redemption. Such spiritual self-fashioning, when performed in accordance to ecclesiastical doctrines and practices, formed, he claims, an effective means of achieving mystical union with the divine.

Decker barely mentions the artist’s best-known work, namely, the Vienna panels, the surviving shutter of a monumental triptych commissioned by the Haarlem Brotherhood of Saint John for the high altar of their chapel. Instead, he attends to Geertgen’s smaller images, perhaps because their intimate scale seems to invite personal meditation.

Little is known about the life of Geertgen. Most information regarding it derives from two seventeenth-century sources: an engraving by Theodore Matham and Karel van Mander’s Het Schilderboeck. According to the latter, the artist joined the Commandery of Saint John as a servant-painter, receiving room and board in exchange for his labor. Van Mander’s characterization has led scholars to believe that Geertgen worked exclusively for the Hospitallers and that he was thus not bound by guild regulations. On the other hand, it is difficult to explain how Geertgen could have had so many close followers without an active workshop.

In his first chapter, Decker offers a plausible solution to this problem. Elaborating upon van Mander’s remarks, he argues that Geertgen was a provenier, someone affiliated with the knightly order who recognized the authority of its commander, but who did not take monastic vows. Although Geertgen may have lived as a semi-religious among the Hospitallers, he would have been free to supplement his income by working outside the Commandery. If indeed this were the case, the artist would not have been exempt from the rules of the Haarlem guild. Consequently, Geertgen may have maintained membership with the local guild and may have had a workshop with skilled apprentices.

At the close of chapter 1, Decker criticizes van Mander’s proclamation that Geertgen was predestined to be a painter already in his mother’s womb. Decker is correct to highlight the fallacy of artistic genius, especially in fifteenth-century Holland, for concealing the numerous ways in which Geertgen was shaped by his surroundings. But in doing so, he minimizes the rhetorical value of van Mander’s remarks. They not only elevate Geertgen’s status among his peers, but the very reference to the womb of the painter’s mother renders him analogous to the Hospitaller’s own patron-saint, John the Baptist, who is said to have been filled with the Holy Spirit already in his mother’s womb.

In the second chapter, Decker addresses the Rotterdam-Edinburgh diptych as an intimate object produced to protect and shape the soul of the pious beholder. He argues that the Passion scenes with self-flagellating saints on the left panel fostered the imitation of Christ through empathic identification and self-discipline. The pendant second panel, depicting the Maria in Sole, promoted recitation of the rosary, as it showed the heavenly rewards awaiting the transformed soul. Although Decker rightly notes that the relationship between the panels is not causal, he assumes the Maria in Sole image, unlike its counterpart, is atemporal. Perhaps it would be better to discuss the first wing as representing significant moments in the sacred past, ones quite pertinent for the present, and the second wing as revealing holy events, also very meaningful to the viewer, but still to come. In addition, Decker suggests that the diptych serves as a “do-it-yourself” spiritual manual of self-fashioning. Yet, this argument threatens to reduce late medieval piety to a theology of merit, potentially undermining the importance of self-denial and the dependency on grace.

The third chapter focuses on Geertgen’s Man of Sorrows. According to Decker, the small panel, possibly part of a diptych, encouraged compassionate identification with Christ, who appears both as sacrifice and priest. This work called pious viewers to taste his pain and confess their sins in tearful contrition. Such soulful purification, he suggests, offered penitent beholders opportunities to merge with the godhead. Decker also implies that the work may have been placed on a table in the nave of the Commandery’s chapel to promote confession. Although Decker correctly relates the panel to mystical devotion and the sacraments of the Mass and penance, his argument concerning the image’s placement is unsupported. The panel could serve precisely the same functions in a monastic cell.

In the fourth chapter, Decker interprets Geertgen’s Nativity as an aid for mystical enlightenment. He suggests that the painting not only shows the infant Christ as the divine light of salvation, but it also illuminates a path for those lost in the darkness of sin to discover spiritual renewal and become reborn in Christ. Decker helpfully discusses the practice of crib veneration in Haarlem as a means of advocating Eucharistic piety and of encouraging the devout to be spiritually reformed, to become “children of the light.” Decker offers readers opportunities to see Geertgen’s painting as promoting the Mass and mysticism simultaneously. However, his speculation that the painting may have hung in the Commandery’s chapter room, where knightly monks met for canonical prayers, again seems unnecessary.

Decker addresses Geertgen’s Saint John in the Wilderness as a meditational tool for taming the wilderness of the soul in preparation for paradise. Decker rightly shows that the Hospitallers’ patron saint is depicted within the confines of a hortus conclusus, rather than a place of desolation and temptation. The enclosed garden may have reminded viewers of the Commandery and invited them to contemplate the contours of their own souls. The painting might also have called pious observers to purify themselves through ascetic meditation and by planting “seeds of righteousness” within the gardens of their souls. Such soulful cultivation of virtue, he suggests, anticipates the harvest of God’s love. Decker’s discussion of this painting could be taken further. The painting of paradise itself may also imply death of the old self and life anew in Christ. It may have suggested not only the need for spiritual conversion and contemptus mundi, but also the sacramental power of baptism and of swearing allegiance to the monastery. The taking of monastic vows, after all, was commonly described as a “second baptism.”

In his conclusion, Decker reasserts his thesis that Geertgen’s paintings served as meditational tools to foster the discipline, purification, and elevation of pious souls. The artist’s panels formed part of a broader culture of visual devotion, which included prayer beads, books of hours, popular prints, pipe-clay figurines, and other items aimed at shaping the religious experience of those who saw them. However, Decker argues, the spiritual technology of the late medieval image ended with the Reformation. The soteriological doctrine of sola fides rendered good works and the use of meditational images ineffective for salvation. Decker overemphasizes the differences between Protestant and Catholic worship in the sixteenth century. His claims seem to be based on the false assumption that Protestants are primarily Christians of the Word, whereas Catholics are primarily Christians of the Image. The truth is more complicated.

Nonetheless, Decker’s book can readily enhance our understanding of late medieval religious practices and deepen our interpretation of the ways in which Geertgen’s paintings were shaped by, and helped to shape, the visual piety of late fifteenth-century Haarlem. Despite my criticism, his text opens new avenues for studying the art of the northern Netherlands in ways that far exceed Albert Châtelet’s Early Dutch Painting (Trans. Christopher Brown and Anthony Turner, New York: Rizzoli, 1981). Decker deserves high praise for encouraging us to reexamine the work of Geertgen tot Sint Jans in relation to contemporary devotional literary sources and religious practices.

Henry M. Luttikhuizen
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Calvin College