Indulgences have had a bad press. Reviled as the epitome of Catholic greed and the lurid practice that sparked the Reformation, to this day they are cast in a negative light. This view overlooks the fact that most indulgences were primarily small, forty-day remissions traded not for cash but for prayers, fundamentally shaping late medieval devotion in the process. It also sidelines the rich and multifaceted visual culture that indulgences engendered, which is the subject of Miyako Sugiyama’s book.
The grant of an indulgence could turn a work of art into a “passport to paradise,” to borrow Robert Swanson’s evocative phrase: a currency in the economy of salvation that defined late medieval religion. Indulgences conferred a distinct spiritual value onto images, one which did not always align with their material or artistic worth, and so Sugiyama’s book considers both canonical and lesser-known works. Pardons endowed images with the power to prompt viewers into action, be it to loosen their purse or to pray for the benefit of their souls and those of their friends and relatives. Artists crafted sophisticated visual strategies to encourage these interactions further; hence, images associated with indulgences constitute uniquely attractive objects for a study of viewer-response.
Sugiyama’s clearly written and lavishly illustrated volume surveys for the first time the wide-ranging body of images that functioned as supports for indulgenced prayers in the Burgundian Netherlands from the mid-fifteenth century until the Reformation. Although the author’s primary focus is on panel painting, printed books and illuminated manuscripts are productively brought to the discussion; arguably, sculpture might have been too.
“Indulgenced images” is a convenient but slightly misleading shorthand: it was not the mere act of beholding an image that could earn pardons but the ritual recitation of a specified prayer in front of a work of art, or the making of a donation prompted by the object. As Sugiyama usefully establishes from the outset, two distinct types of indulgenced images existed. Firstly, certain iconographic themes became associated with pardons. In this case, the spiritual remission extended to every image featuring the subject-matter in question. The second category comprised indulgenced objects, that is singular works of art that received a special grant from a prelate, often obtained for a fee and at the request of whoever owned it.
The first two chapters delve into the former type. Chapter 1 reviews three famously indulgenced iconographies – the Vera Icon, the Virgin in the Sun, and the Mass of Saint Gregory – and their wide dissemination. These case studies highlight the slippery nature of the inquiry: for all three the spiritual remission was not connected to an image but to a prayer. For instance, with respect to the Holy Face, it was not the Vatican’s miraculous acheiropoieton that was indulgenced, but the prayers penned in its praise. Images replicating this object, like the panels by and after Jan van Eyck’s workshop that Sugiyama discusses, developed later as visual support for the recitation of those prayers, or as Matthew Paris puts it, to “more greatly inflame [the] devotion” of those who memorized them. Arguably, it was also the aura of the image as an Eyckian invention that propelled this particular type’s replication. Missing from the discussion is consideration of the credit that contemporary viewers gave to the inflated and inconsistent promises of remission advertised by these images: the putative (and astronomical) reward for prayers said before the Mass of Saint Gregory ranged from 14,000 to 20,000 years, raising skepticism from contemporaries.
Chapter 2 explores how images intersected with indulgences to foster virtual pilgrimages. Sugiyama reviews a range of works, from devotional booklets illustrated with stylized renditions of holy sites, mental visits to which would earn beholders pardons, to the detailed, panoramic views of Jerusalem dotted with scenes from Christ’s Passion pioneered by Hans Memling. This chapter’s most notable contribution is Sugiyama’s discovery of a small panel showing Christ on the Cross in front of a church inscribed with the letter G (private collection). She convincingly identifies it as a depiction of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme from a cycle depicting the seven pilgrimage churches of Rome, of which two other paintings survive (Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, and Bob Jones University Museum and Gallery, Greenville, SC). Drawn from devotional guidebook imagery, these panels probably functioned as station markers within a monastic complex, guiding mental pilgrims physically from site to site, not only earning them pardons but also superimposing an alternative, spiritual geography onto their everyday surroundings, thereby endowing their institution with added sanctity.
Sugiyama turns in Chapter 3 to uniquely indulgenced objects, focusing mainly on The Virgin and Child with Saint Barbara, Saint Elizabeth, and Jan Vos (Frick Collection, New York), commissioned from Van Eyck and his workshop by the Carthusian monk Jan Vos following his appointment as prior of the Bruges charterhouse of Genadedal in 1441. Vos subsequently obtained from a bishop a forty-day indulgence for this work and for two other images in his possession. Although comprehensive, Sugiyama’s account of Vos’s patronage rests on the misguided assumption that indulgenced images functioned as miraculous ones, and that their purpose was to attract laymen to worship within the monastic enclosure. Although in practice breaches of Carthusian confinement and silence frequently occurred (a few decades after Vos’s tenure at Genadedal, Hieronymus Münzer reported his visit and enlightening conversation with the librarian there), a modest forty-day pardon, ubiquitous and widely available outside the monastery, would not have motivated visits from outsiders. Rather, the grant is best understood as intended to confer added spiritual benefits and prestige upon the order, and to encourage Vos’s colleagues to remember him after his death. Given the likely function of Vos’s panel as a memorial, the author’s failure to discuss how pardons might be used to boost commemoration, explored notably by Robert Swanson and Douglas Brine, feels like a missed opportunity. The same can be said of the “Ave” inscribed on the cloth of honor behind the Virgin – the author overlooks the fact that cannily embedded within the image is the very response it seeks to elicit.
Chapter 4 shines a light on a rarely examined group of objects: Ablasstafeln (indulgence tablets), copies or summaries of indulgence letters made to advertise pardons to churchgoers. Like contemporary royal charters and foundation documents, they were often lavishly illuminated, their imagery celebrating the object or cult connected to the pardon. Sugiyama reviews some impressive examples, beginning with the famous indulgence of Our Lady of Hulsterloo: this large vellum sheet promoted the remission awarded to those who contributed financially to the construction of a new chapel for this miraculous image. As shown by Hugo van der Velden, the sheet’s scribe and illuminator seem to compete to evoke the woodland setting to which the sculpture was divinely brought. Next in consideration is an illuminated sheet made to commemorate the various indulgences conceded to Bruges’s Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament by a coterie of bishops. These prelates are depicted gathered in adoration of the Corpus Christi, lending authority to the tablet just as their seals would on the original letter. The discussion unfortunately gets sidetracked by considerations over attributions which, although persuasive, have little to do with the topic at hand.
The book’s final chapter explores the ways indulgences helped disseminate particular cults and their associated imagery across Europe. It does so through a compelling case study of Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, bishop of Palencia, who during his diplomatic stay in the Netherlands joined a fledgling Bruges confraternity devoted to the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin. Upon his return to Spain, he proclaimed his new devotional interest by placing a triptych promoting it, by Jan Joest van Kalkar, as the centerpiece of the monumental carved choir screen he commissioned for his episcopal seat. The triptych’s wings advertised the indulgences attached to the recitation of prayers before this image. Once again, the interaction between pardons and the possible commemorative function of this triptych (in which Fonseca’s likeness features prominently) is not addressed. The argument gets lost in a detailed discussion of Fonseca’s patronage unrelated to the Virgin of the Seven Sorrows.
Such lapses in direction and focus are the book’s weakness. Although Sugiyama’s research is in-depth and thorough, her text is overly descriptive and often lacks critical analysis. Background facts that belong in footnotes cloud her narrative and her conclusions can feel vague as a result. Throughout, we get little sense of the strategic and deliberate ways in which indulgences were requested, purchased, and bestowed by clerics to attract donations, channel devotion, encourage certain cults, and endorse newly made or miraculous images. Criticism of indulgences and attacks on images only feature in Sugiyama’s concluding remarks on the Reformation, but mention of earlier debates would have been useful. More could have been made of what little evidence we have of people actually interacting with indulgenced images – be it in writings reproving the practice or in the wear in manuscripts left by repeated kissing and touching. Despite these reservations, this volume remains a worthy contribution that will no doubt provide a valuable starting point for future studies on this overlooked corpus.
National Gallery, London