Andrea Pearson’s pioneering study maps out an intriguing plan for examining Burgundian devotional art in the late middle ages by adopting an unaccustomed focus: that of the gender of its patrons and owners. Her focus is exclusively on portrait diptychs, which she has observed were overwhelmingly commissioned by men, and the portraits in books of hours, which she notes as originally the purview of women. Once this generalization has been established, in the Introduction and the first chapter, she goes on to examine individual cases that refine her vision of the interaction of gender with the display of piety and the assertion of power.
The second chapter brings in devotional portraits from the Netherlands, France, and Germany, and is perhaps the most diffuse and ambitious. It introduces the familiar Rogerian portrait diptych, exemplified by those made for Philippe de Croÿ and Jean Gros, with a prayerful male owner against a dark isolating background, facing the Virgin and Child. Here the male adoption of the portrait diptych is seen as a reaction to the perceived dominance of female spirituality in books of hours, an artistic reaction that both appropriated and distorted images used in women’s books. The private vision of the holy figures, once granted to the women portrayed at Matins as they contemplated the Incarnation, and now vouchsafed to a man, is read as an anxious male response to the threat of the unmediated visions women experienced in their private devotions.
The latter chapters consider patrons whose gender allegiance is less than traditional: men who have chosen the “alternative masculinity” of a chaste marriage; members of the clergy, who form a rather gender-neutral, not to say neutered group; the abbess Jeanne de Boubais, whose Cistercian nuns were facing clerical demands that they live a more strictly cloistered life; and Margaret of Austria, whose lineage should have allowed her to step into the tradition of Burgundian portrait diptychs, but whose gender barred her from full participation. The portraits from all of these groups are examined in a way that provides an illuminating context for the sitters’ decisions.
Several of the readings are especially well thought out and presented in convincing detail. Pearson’s interpretation of Martin van Nieuwenhove as the ambitious sprig of a civic-minded Bruges family, eager to declare his maturity and physical self-mastery, gains from her provocative reading of the young man’s emblems and the saints alluded to in the diptych. Some readings, however, could have benefited from a more cautious and contextual presentation of the theological implications of individual works. In her discussion of Jean de Berry’s added portrait in the Brussels Hours, for example, Pearson addresses the well known miniatures of the duke (on the verso) regarding the Virgin and nursing/writing Christ child (on the facing recto) under the heading “Incarnational,” though the term “Marian” might be more accurate. She then describes the duke’s piety in this miniature as “Christocentric,” and declares in the next paragraph that the duke’s devotion in this image is “Eucharistic,” though it is puzzling that no Eucharistic elements are identified. These terms may all be applicable but they are hardly synonymous; and the reader may feel that some necessary explication has been skipped.
Pearson was able to confirm Roger Wieck’s estimate that books of hours were owned far more often by women than by men, the number of female owners topping male at a ratio of 3 to 1. But her estimate was apparently calculated only from those books furnished with portraits. (Presumably this corpus was chosen to balance the male portrait diptychs; though possibly this sensible shortcut was adopted in order that the author might finish the study within her lifetime). Further research could build on her conclusions by refining our knowledge of the owners of books of hours, using texts as well as illustrations to characterize the owners and to track their choices. The gender of the devout “servant” and “sinner” addressing the Virgin in two popular prayers, the Obsecro te and the O intemerata, for example, can suggest the gender of owners who did not spring for a portrait. We may find that those books furnished with portraits were preponderantly for female owners; or that certain texts were associated with one gender, or that the choices of text over time reinforce the author’s contention that men’s commissions mimicked and then distorted women’s self-representation. Pearson’s book invites us to examine some very familiar works with fresh eyes. With such fascinating trends as the ones laid out in this book, scholars may be inspired to expand the body of evidence by considering additional material and asking further questions.