Pearson sets out to expand and recalibrate the ways that art historians conceptualize early modern garden imagery. Specifically, she challenges an overemphasis on interiority that she sees in modern scholarship on religious images from this period. To do this, she investigates garden iconography, which is argued to be intertwined with moralizing messages directed toward emphasizing proper control over the body and sexuality. Pearson argues that the point of such moralization was salvation – without proper control of the body and its desires, the soul could not attain heaven. To carry out her study, she investigates “the interdependence of three otherwise relatively distinct areas of inquiry for the northern Renaissance – garden history, devotional imagery, and the history of the body in relation to sex, gender, and disability” (23). The purpose of this approach is to reveal different ways to understand these seemingly disparate fields and to challenge long-standing modes of art historical interpretation so that she can more fully contextualize the works under study. While relying on a number of sources (visual and written), Pearson focuses especially on the Canticum canticorum (the Song of Songs) and the hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) as the primary lenses through which she frames and constructs her interpretations.
The first chapter of this book investigates what Pearson terms “moralized love” and uses various forms of written sources referencing the hortus conclusus to show how this theme, and its related image type, could address bodily purity and sexual continence. The enjoinder to purity, Pearson observes, was not directed solely toward women. Men, too, were susceptible to this form of social control and needed to proclaim their conformity publicly even if, or especially when, it did not match their actual behavior or circumstances. Chapters two and three take besloten hofjes (enclosed gardens) as their objects of focus. These chapters appeared previously as stand-alone articles but their pairing here works well as it provides an extended examination of an intriguing object type. Hofjes were complex assemblages of various materials – including small relics and religious badges – constructed for devotional purposes. Chapter two examines a hofje commissioned on behalf of Maria van der Putte, a sight-impaired sister at the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwegasthuisin Mechelen. Pearson argues that the finished work reminded the other nuns of the institution’s commitment to care for Maria despite the socially accepted implication that her impairment was the result of her parents’ sinful behavior. The author also maintains that seeing the hofje as something commissioned and constructed outside the convent – rather than an internal product – changes how scholars should think about these items. Previous scholarly consensus has held that such objects were made by cloistered communities of women purely for local consumption. Pearson’s examination realigns this view. The second hofje-centered study (Chapter 3) investigates how such items could address internal convent politics. Specifically, Pearson examines how the hofje in question was commissioned to commemorate, and celebrate, a successful reform of the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwegasthuis. The author notes that elements of devotion to the Holy Land as well as dedication to cloistering – both central to the reforms – were represented within the hofje and its iconography. This, in turn, signaled the hospice’s commitment to the highest levels of monastic morality, which assuaged concerns among members of the church hierarchy regarding the convent and its community.
Pearson uses Chapters four through six to examine the roles of enclosed gardens, and the images of Christ, the Virgin, and saints depicted in them, as venues for exemplifying bodily morality. Chapter four situates the 1465 block book edition of the Netherlandish Canticum canticorum within long-standing exegetical frameworks and argues that it was understood as a call to virginity. The fifth chapter examines a 1488 incunabulum titled the Spiritual Childhood of Christ Moralized and proposes that it invokes the Song of Songs, as well as the Love Hunt topos, to critique unchaste sexuality through overt eroticism. Chapter six examines images of the infant St. John and Christ kissing – the theme that Pearson identifies in her introduction as the key conceptual driver for the entire project – as moralizations, and critiques, of homosexual desire. Pearson ends the book with an epilogue dedicated to images of mother-son eroticism, which she sees as offering “elusive yet compelling imperatives about carnal control” (298).
Throughout her book, Pearson’s arguments are dependent on readings of eroticism that could be overt or, simultaneously, covert and even subversive. One of her stated goals is to demonstrate how garden imagery was a vehicle for critiquing eroticism and defining morality in bodily terms. To explore this possibility, Pearson draws on Elizabeth L’Estrange’s concept of the “situational eye.” This term describes interpretive skills in which (quoting L’Estrange) “‘certain viewers especially sensitive to the intertextualities and intervisualities’ of cultural production may interpret nuances in images in ways that those not sensitized might not” (13). Pearson uses this concept to explain how homoerotically charged elements in religious images may have been legible to some viewers and not to others. Religious images, she notes, are important sites in which various socio-religious tensions are worked out by the public. Quoting Sherry Lindquist, Pearson observes, for example, that “images of the adult Christ ‘lent themselves to appropriation by medieval viewers who might hold flexible, alternative and sometimes transgressive attitudes about sex and gender’” (22). She embraces the complications that come from deploying L’Estrange’s and Lindquist’s ideas and acknowledges that discussing same-sex incest and pedophilial desire may “seem more contemporary than late medieval or early modern” (17). This approach, Pearson argues, is not necessarily anachronistic however. She notes, for example, that “it is useful to remember that certain moralists of the period were disturbed by the carnal implications of the depicted nude [Christ] Child, to the point of attributing dangerous thoughts and toxic responses to viewers of the Infant’s image” (17). Such responses, she notes, were not unusual but were “part of a longer tradition that condemned images of the nude as morally harmful, especially to children” (18).
Pearson uses the ideas of L’Estrange, Lindquist, and others as set of tools for challenging standard art historical interpretive approaches. She notes throughout the book that she seeks to extend interpretations in order to provide new ways of thinking about the images under study. This is certainly laudable and is always welcome in the field. Some of the interpretations, for me at least, push the analysis beyond what is readily supportable and, in the process, lose their ability to persuade. An example of this is Pearson’s reading of the bodies of the infants in Joos van Cleve’s The Infants Christ and St. John the Baptist Embracing and Kissing, c. 1525-30. The author states that there is a Eucharistic corollary between the bodies of the children and the Host. She argues, “the round, smooth, white infant bodies are host-like, such that the forms and flesh of either one – whichever figure a beholder might have interpreted as Christ – could invoke the idea of ocular consumption and communion” (110). To support her assertion, Pearson turns to Todd Richardson’s reading of Peter Aertsen’s Pancake Eaters, 1560, in which a pancake is placed near a boy’s face. The boy is read as John the Baptist and the pancake is seen as a Eucharistic substitution for Christ. In this instance, the form involved (the pancake) is visually analogous to the round form of the Host. The main issue with the Eucharistic connection that Pearson makes is that neither child’s body in van Cleve’s work is particularly host-like. Their forms are plump and volumetric to evoke their infancy but are not overtly evocative of the wafer. In my view, the claim of a visual connection to the disk form of the Host is not sustainable compositionally. A similar over-extension of interpretation is at play in her analysis of Jan Gossart’s engraving The Virgin and Child Seated at the Foot of a Tree, 1522. The image is included in her epilogue on mother-son eroticism. Pearson states that the Virgin “reciprocates her son’s amatory advances insofar as their lips meet in a kiss – or very nearly so” (304). The image, however, does not support this reading as the Virgin’s lips are clearly visible and do not meet Christ’s. Further, the equivocation “or very nearly so” inadvertently invites the reader to overlook the evidence of the image in favor of the interpretation the author wishes to offer. In both cases – van Cleve’s painting and Gossart’s print – key elements of the analysis are not supported, or supportable, by the primary source objects.
The moments in which interpretation strains at the edges of what is persuasive aside, the book is an interesting addition to the study of Northern European art in the early modern period. Pearson’s willingness to gather numerous strands in the service of offering interpretations that push at various scholarly boundaries is commendable. The rich variety of images (canonical and obscure), as well as the impressive bibliography she has assembled, provide excellent resources for students and scholars alike.
John R. Decker