This ponderous quarto is in some respects both a summation and an extension of Walter Melion’s work of the past two decades, in which he has identified and analyzed instances of what he calls “meditative image-making” in Netherlandish prints of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The eight individual case studies (plus a substantive introduction and epilogue) comprised by the book have not been previously published, but Melion returns to some of his favored objects of analysis, such as the plates of the Evangelicae historiae imagines (1593), mostly by the Wierix brothers after Bernardino Passeri, appended to Jerónimo Nadal’s Adnotationes et meditations in Evangelia (here the appearances of the risen Christ), and Hendrick Goltzius’s engraved series of the Life of the Virgin (1593-1594), as well as introducing other prints, print series, and book illustrations, including the plates by Boëtius à Bolswert in Antonius Sucquet’s Via vitae aeternae (1620); and several further works by Hieronymus Wierix, including two series: Iesu Christi Dei Domini Salvatoris nostri infantia (perhaps 1600-1610), and Septem Psalmi Davidici (1608; one plate is engraved by Antoon Wierix). Goltzius’s drawing of the Adoration of the Magi (1605) and Otto van Veen’s Carrying of the Cross altarpiece (c. 1610) expand the discussion into other media, but they are viewed in the context of the print tradition whence they emerged.
Melion’s long-standing concern has been with artworks that can be shown to thematize their own production and function. In this volume he has selected works “that call attention to their status as images, using the theme of pictorial artifice to heighten the soul’s awareness of its own image-making powers” (p. 3) – powers exemplified by Christ in His own figuration as imago Dei, sanctioned by the Incarnation. The prints both represent and prompt the soul’s devotional activity.
Melion adduces instances in which artists and writers commented on meditative images, such as Christopher Plantin’s prefaces to Benito Arias Montano’s Humanae salutis monumenta (1571), wherein the publisher explains the utility of the images and their relations to the texts in this novel scriptural emblem book. But he also draws attention to texts in which the language of pictorial practice is applied to meditative practice – thus Luis Granada in his Libro de la oración(English trans. 1582) says that “we must then figure and represente everie one of these matters [concerning the Passion] in our imagination” – and in which meditation is likened to viewing a painting, as in Franciscus Costerus’s preface to his De vita et laudibus Deiparae Mariae Virginis (1588). Furthermore, Melion extracts from texts and images less explicit connections between picturing and devotion, both in production (for example, in his Protean feat of imitation in the Life of the Virgin, “Goltzius tropes the imitative process, using it to convey the soul’s conversion of itself into an image of the beloved, whose likeness it craves” [p. 372]) and in viewing (we are reminded repeatedly of the role of sight in meditation; thus, for example, our viewing of the Christi Iesu vitae admirabiliumque actionum speculum, which is embedded in Montano’s Divinarum nuptiarum conventa et acta of 1573/74, doubles that of Sponsa who contemplates in a mirror images of the life of Christ, her spouse, in the Acta). We are also reminded of the ways in which protagonists within compositions fix the viewer’s relationship to the narrative; thus Saint Joseph “functions for Goltzius as a prototype of the ideal votary who meditates with his eyes, mind, and heart” and is “a type of the pious viewer” (pp. 199-200).
Evoking an emblematic apparatus, the analysis typically proceeds through a juxtaposition of the selected images with textual works of devotion, some of which were already juxtaposed by their makers and others of which are Melion’s reasoned choices. Most of the texts are Jesuit; the most prominent exception is, perhaps, the Vita Christi of the fourteenth-century Carthusian Ludolph of Saxony, which was of considerable import in the sixteenth century. The images are never simply illustrations of the texts, even when that seems to be their ostensible function, as in the works appended to Nadal’s Adnotationes. Rather, one might say that they illustrate and elucidate the texts to the same extent that the texts illustrate and elucidate the images. Melion’s work is not a matter of deciphering iconography, which is in most instances not particularly obscure, but rather of discovering and explicating the rich parallels and shared tropes (shared sometimes by explicit design and sometimes through a common genealogy of practice) in the meditative programs of complementary images and texts. He offers exceptionally close and subtle readings of both images and texts, attending carefully, as far as the images are concerned, to the formal elements that are deployed to serve the works’ function of mobilizing the viewer’s eyes, mind, and heart.
The Meditative Art is an important contribution not only to our understanding of the function of images in (Jesuit) spirituality and to our understanding of the print culture of the Netherlands (especially Antwerp) in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century (whose extraordinary significance to a more “mainstream” art history is still underappreciated), but also as a model for the close reading of images in conjunction with mutually illuminating texts. This volume inaugurates a series, entitled Early Modern Catholicism and the Visual Arts, by Saint Joseph’s University Press, which has in recent years published several significant works in the history of art (not least of which are three volumes of translations from Nadal’s Adnotationeswith the relevant illustrations and substantive introductory essays by Walter Melion), each carefully produced and well illustrated. We hope that subsequent volumes in the series can match the high quality and import of Melion’s Meditative Art.
Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation