Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 17, 2011
Walter S. Melion The Meditative Art: Studies in the Northern Devotional Print, 1550–1625 Early Modern Catholicism and the Visual Arts, vol 1.. Philadelphia: Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2009. 442 pp.; 157 b/w ills. Cloth $90.00 (9780916101602)

Walter Melion’s The Meditative Art: Studies in the Northern Devotional Print, 1550–1625, like the early modern works it studies, calls for a disciplined eye and close reading. Although the text is quite lengthy and includes numerous Latin references, it is neither dry nor tedious to read. Nonetheless, it is demanding. For readers willing to face the challenge, Melion’s book reveals the complexities and nuances of early modern visual piety in a fresh and powerful manner. Not only does it provide a new interpretation of prints seldom studied, it also encourages readers to examine artistic and devotional practices linked to early modern Christianity in much more profound ways.

Melion opens the text with a question: why were prominent Catholic theologians, such as Jerónimo Nadal and Benito Arias Montano, so enthusiastic about prints? The answer, explains Melion, can be found in Montano’s own writings. Pictures, according to the sixteenth-century cleric, can provide persuasive and delightful examples, effectively illustrating words. They can get listeners to pay closer attention to what is being said. More importantly, visual images not only keep minds from wandering, they also help the devout to conform their souls more closely to the will of God. As instruments of meditative prayer, pictures, it is argued, increase the soul’s capacity to recognize its own image-making powers, as they encourage believers to refashion themselves in imitation of Christ. As Melion points out, Christ serves as the subject and the source of this spiritual transformation.

The early modern prints discussed throughout the book are tied to two kinds of spiritual exercises of soulful picturing: the speculative and the spectacular. In speculative meditation, pious beholders, through prayerful reflection, strive to mirror their souls after Christ, who is the image of God as well as the perfect image of humanity. Conforming to the likeness of Christ, it is suggested, will foster union with the divine. Spectacular meditation, by contrast, encourages devout viewers to produce vivid images within themselves, in hopes of granting sacred narratives and figures new life within the interiors of their souls. In the following chapters, Melion offers eight case studies focusing on the ways in which a particular Netherlandish print or print series promoted the imitation of Christ through prayerful refashioning of the soul.

In the first chapter, Melion examines a series of twenty-eight engravings published and produced by Philips Galle. The prints, which served as illustrations in Montano’s Diviniarum nuptiarum convento en acta (Antwerp, 1573), represent allegorical scenes readily associated with bridal mysticism. Throughout the text, the beloved soul longs to be one with Christ. Galle’s engravings elicit the desire for spiritual insight or mystical union by calling dramatic attention to the power of the gaze exchanged between depicted figures, as the bride of the soul humbly prepares herself for the eschatological wedding feast to be shared with Christ the Bridesgroom. Within this context, speculative and spectacular meditation work in tandem, whereby the picturing soul discovers closer intimacy with God.

The second chapter addresses the ways in which vision was employed to confirm faith of salvation in Nadal’s Adnotationes et meditations in Evangelia (Antwerp, 1595), richly illustrated with engravings by Hieronymus and Antoon Wierix. According to the early Jesuit scholar, miraculous apparitions of the risen Christ demonstrate a biblical defense for the use of meditational imagery. After the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene and others witness the presence of Christ. Such visual encounters, Nadal argues, promote faith in life anew offered to those with the ability to generate and visualize this imagery.

In the third chapter, Melion investigates how a series of Jesuit meditative prints, Boëtius à Bolswert’s engraving from Antonius Sucquet’s Vir virtae aeternae (Antwerp, 1620), offered early modern beholders templates to be interpreted by the cognitive faculties. In one of the engravings, the Christian believer is portrayed as a painter who fashions his heart as a painting produced in imitation of Christ. The meditative itinerary of the picturing soul is laid out in a manner analogous to the Stations of the Cross, in alphabetic sequence. Although he initially remains chained to sin and worldly ways, through intense meditation, by fixing his eyes on Christ, this Christian is liberated by the grace of God. The liberated Christian, blessed by divine light, is offered assurance. In the background, David defeats Goliath as Peter walks on water, scenes that simultaneously reveal the power of grace and offer virtuous exempla to follow on the road to salvation. The images and text mobilize devout souls to discover greater conformity with Christ by not only showing observers the path toward God, but also the proper steps for completing such a journey.

Although unmentioned by Melion, there seems to be a significant, though subtle, difference between Bolswert’s engraving and earlier images, such as Memling’s Passion Scenes (Turin, 1470), promoting spiritual or imaginative pilgrimage. Rather than encourage the viewer to find her or his own way, Bolswert’s print appears to offer a more orthodox trail, a more clearly defined means of journeying toward spiritual perfection. The religious enthusiasm promoted by his engraving not only appears more explicitly intellectual in character; it also seems to assume greater recognition of providential order. In other words, the spiritual exercise appears to be more predetermined. Discipline and penance remain crucial religious practices, but they have become more straightforward or more clearly articulated, for in Bolswert’s engraving, they appear to be more closely aligned with knowing how to follow the virtues. On the other hand, the Jesuit image, like late medieval devotional imagery, should not be reduced to a vehicle for keeping the pious observer on the proper course. After all, the early seventeenth-century print calls viewers to greater personal responsibility and continues to advocate heartfelt charity, performed in imitation of Christ and the saints, as an effective means to approach the divine. Yet the complexity of Bolswert’s engraving, like that of many other images discussed by Melion, makes one wonder how widely such spiritual exercises were actually practiced.

In the fourth of his case studies, Melion concentrates on two print series featuring Saint Joseph, one produced by Hieronymus Wierix (Antwerp, after 1585) and the other by Hendrick Goltzius (Haarlem, 1593–94). By calling attention to visual parallels between spiritual exercises and artistic practice, Wierix depicts the carpenter Joseph as an ideal model for the picturing soul to imitate. Goltzius also elevates the status of Joseph. He represents the saint as an ideal votary, who relies on his eyes for discovering spiritual discernment. Although Melion’s interpretations of the two series are persuasive, an even richer analysis would have compared them to earlier images of the saint. It might also have proved fruitful to consider these engravings in relation to the writings of Jean Gerson and other late medieval theologians who promoted the cult of Saint Joseph.

The following chapter addresses Hieronymus Wierix’s Trinity (Antwerp, ca. 1580–88) as a meditational device promoting penance. Reminiscent of scenes of the Pietà and the Throne of Mercy, Wierix’s engraving invites meditational reflection on Christ’s sacrifice, as it encourages contrition. Such a display of divine majesty and kenotic humility would have readily appealed to Post-Tridentine Catholics. After all, it reinforces the sacrament of the Eucharist as a truly propitiatory sacrifice.

Although the print was primarily intended for a Catholic audience, it also suited the needs of Lutheran viewers. For Lutherans, the engraving may have reinforced the theological doctrine of justification by grace alone. In other words, Christ’s sacrifice reveals the power of love to intervene on behalf of a sinful humanity incapable of following God’s Law. As Melion argues, confessional boundaries in early modern Europe remained contested and porous. For Catholic and Lutheran beholders alike, the image called the pious to erase false idols fashioned within their fallen hearts and souls in hopes of reforming a true image of God within themselves.

In the sixth chapter, Melion continues his examination of penitential imagery by looking at Hieronymus and Antoon Wierix’s Septem Psalmi Davidici (Antwerp, 1604). He claims that the metonymic figure of the catena or chain, which twists and turns in these engravings, elicits comparisons between the calligraphic flow of words written across the print and the flow of Christ’s blood, while also fostering heartfelt compunction, the source of prayerful meditation. The looping movement of these verbal chains provided paths for enhancing the sacred bond between God and the Christian soul.

The final two case studies investigate how meditational practices associated with Jesuit prints translated to drawings and paintings. In the first, Melion focuses on Goltzius’s drawing of the Adoration of the Magi (Edinburgh, 1605). The unconventional image encourages the beholder to inhabit a space typically reserved for the Magi, who are depicted behind the Holy Family. Like the Magi, viewers are called to follow visual signs and recognize the poverty and regality of Christ. Epiphany is also addressed as a moment for spiritual conversion, for it is by seeing the light that the Magi humbly imitate Christ in kneeling before him. In this sense, the Magi serve as paragons of prayerful virtue, for they traveled by divine light and came face to face with God.

In the final chapter, Melion studies Otto van Veen’s Carrying of the Cross (Brussels, ca. 1610) in conjunction with the picturing of the soul. At least four of the depicted figures gaze out toward the viewer. Even more surprisingly, the Holy Face, displayed on Veronica’s veil, appears to return this gaze. The sacred icon of the Holy Face reinforces the defense of meditational images. Furthermore, the confrontational gaze rendered on the veil compels the viewer to imitate Christ’s love; it seems to ask the soul to accept any burden from Christ, who, according to Christian doctrine, has accepted the burden of the cross in order to give the soul redemption. Although Melion has effectively shown how prints, drawings, and paintings can foster both speculative and spectacular modes of meditation, he does not address whether early modern sculpture in the Low Countries could also promote spiritual reformation.

Throughout The Meditative Art, the Incarnation implicitly or explicitly sanctions the use of visual images for prayerful meditation. However, Melion does not address how Catholic calls for inner reformation substantially differed from contemporary Calvinist ones, which defined the picturing soul only in terms of a forger of idols. A brief discussion of iconoclasm would have proved helpful. Nonetheless, Melion has done the field a great service. Not only has he presented prints often overlooked, he has also provided a more insightful way to think about the reception of early modern imagery.

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