Lucidly written and clearly organized, Ingrid Falque’s study focuses on the portraits integrated into religious pictures from the Low Countries between circa 1400 and 1550. The corpus of works considered includes not only the single-panel paintings and devotional diptychs most frequently discussed in terms of the portrait, but also more structurally complex works in which portraits feature, like triptychs and polyptychs (the introductory chapter opens with a critique of the characterization in the literature of these sitters as “donors” or “patrons,” opting for the more inclusive “devotional portrait”). In scope, Falque’s project is twofold: firstly, it provides an overview of the varied functions, formats, and compositions in which these devotional portraits are deployed; secondly, it investigates the devotional context for many of them, centering on their incorporation of imagery and “pictorial language” influenced by themes found in devotional literature of the period, particularly the writings of authors associated with the movement known as devotio moderna or Modern Devotion. In doing so, Falque seeks “to consider these artworks as witnesses of the devotional and spiritual experience lived by the sitters, the underlying hypothesis being that many paintings including devotional portraits can be understood as visualisations – or mises en image – of the spiritual progression of the devotees” .
In the Introduction and the first chapter, “Ora pro me: The Forms and Locations of Devotional Portraits in Early Netherlandish Painting,” Falque provides a taxonomy that classifies individual works by format and by the physical placement of the portraits on their painted surfaces: “a series of formal, compositional, and iconographical elements that played a role in the nature and intensity of this relationship.”  Through this exercise, Falque initiates discussion of a number of paintings as case studies in which sensitive observation of their composition and strategies of representation suggest various implications regarding their meaning and content. This includes a nuanced consideration of the spatial relationship between the depictions of the sitters and other aspects of these works: the locations of the portraits vis-à-vis the sitters’ patron saints or the dominant narrative focus; multiple appearances of the sitters or of those saints; the implications of placement on the inside and outside painted surfaces; and the effect of thresholds, transitions, and frames. Expanding on the work of previous scholars, Falque attends to a number of pictorial devices that hint at varying ontological statuses of the represented elements, the implications of the rendering of figures in grisaille and demi-grisaille, and other visual indicators of visionary states and of presence or non-presence. Along the way, Falque engages in some relevant evaluation of art historical commonplaces such as the Andachtsbild and “donor portrait,” as well as a succinct but comprehensive survey of previous scholarship on the topics considered.
Expanding greatly on the scope of the survey of devotional portraits provided in these first chapters, the publisher Brill has made available for download a second element of the book through its website: a comprehensive catalogue of 754 paintings that include devotional portraits produced in the region between circa 1400 and 1550, organized by artist. The brief entry for each work provides a taxonomical code based upon its format and the number and location of sitter/s and patron saint/s, as well as a systematic description of attributes, environment, etc. with historical notes. Given the frequency of portraiture in early modern Netherlandish art, this is a significant undertaking and encompasses, naturally, many of the best-known works from the period, but it is particularly valuable in gathering data on works by lesser known and anonymous painters (the first 227 works are categorized under this latter group, while another 155 works are by provisionally-named masters). Most entries offer a reproduction of the work in question, many in color. The catalog also provides a separate bibliography, including auction catalogues cited.
The remaining four chapters of the book consider the devotional context of the paintings, moving between a number of primary themes located by Falque in devotional literature. Scholars have frequently cited the influence of the writers of the devotio moderna on early modern art in the Low Countries, but Falque can be counted among the smaller group of those who have discussed individual examples of the literature of the movement in greater depth in an art historical context and who have attempted to make concrete connections between specific devotional texts and the visual tradition. The topic of spiritual journeys and the meditative process is considered in the second chapter, “Via ad Deum: Devotional Portraiture and the Spiritual Journey.” Texts considered here feature the most prominent names of the devotio moderna: Geert Grote’s De quattuor generibus meditatabilium (Treatise on Four Classes of Subjects suitable for Meditation), Jan van Ruusbroec’s Die geestelike brulocht (The Spiritual Espousals), and especially Gerard Zerbolt van Zutphen’s De spiritualibus ascensionibus (On Spiritual Ascents) and De reformacione virium anime (On the Reform of the Powers of the Soul). Zerbolt’s De spiritualibus ascensionibus and Ruusbroec’s Die geestelike brulocht, together with the Song of Songs, are invoked again in the same chapter in a discussion of the architectural setting as metaphor: the enclosed garden, house of the soul, cloister of the soul, and the celestial palace. In Chapter 3, “Ascensiones in corde disposuit: Devotional Portraiture and the Spiritual Ascent,” the theme in question is traced as far back as the appearance of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis, through Origen, John Climacus’ Scala paradisi (The Celestial Ladder), and Bonaventure’s De itinerarium mentis in Deum (The Mind’s Road to God) and Triplici via (The Threefold Way). Via the influence of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century writers (including David of Augsburg, Jean Gerson, and others), the discussion reaches the devotio moderna again with Grote, Florent Radewijns’ Tractactulus devotus (Small Devout Treatise), and particularly Zerbolt’s De spiritualibus ascensionibus. Chapter 4, entitled “Eene vergaderinghe van twee personen die comen van diveschen staden: Devotional Portraiture, Union with God and Spiritual Perfection,” concentrates especially on the writings of Ruusbroec, while Chapter 5, “In spiritualem quandam armoniam: Devotional Portraiture and the Role of Images in the Meditative Process,” focuses on Geert Grote’s stance on meditational visualization and the use of religious images as presented in De quattuor generibus meditabilium.
In each of these chapters a number of paintings are analyzed as case studies of how the themes and metaphors under consideration are communicated visually, using a similar approach to that deployed in the first two chapters. Falque illustrates how these paintings served their users in their process of personal spiritual development. Some of the pictures considered in greater depth will be familiar to scholars of Netherlandish art – works by Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Petrus Christus, and Hans Memling feature prominently – but less well-known names and provisional attributions are also used constructively. The brief concluding chapter provides a clear summary of the project at hand and a restatement of the methodology employed.
While this book is a significant contribution to the study of early Netherlandish painting, it will be of interest to an audience beyond narrow disciplinary boundaries since, as Falque concludes, her study is “aimed also at showing that there is a strong convergence between pictorial and literary conventions related to devotional hermeneutics” . With Falque’s lucid description of the complex visual language of the paintings, this project will be appreciated by art historians already familiar with the pictorial conventions of the era but it will also serve as an effective lens for scholars in neighboring disciplines – especially those concerned with devotional literature – who seek to explore the participation of the visual arts in theological and devotional discourse.
Missouri State University