The Seven Sorrows Confraternity of Brussels: Drama, Ceremony, and Art Patronage (16th-17th Centuries) makes a fascinating contribution to the burgeoning scholarship on early modern confraternities. Established in the 1490s by Jan van Coudenberghe, the Seven Sorrows devotion spread throughout the Low Countries, where local chapters orchestrated liturgy, drama, music, and art to commemorate the seven premonitions and first-hand experiences of Christ’s Passion that wounded the Virgin’s heart. As Thelen notes in the preface, the diverse activities of the confraternity are appropriately mirrored in the interdisciplinary nature of her book, with chapters organized around “Foundational History,” “Drama and Ceremony,” and “Art Patronage.” While past scholarship on the Seven Sorrows has relied heavily on a lens of Habsburg patronage, this volume focuses on the “inner workings” of the confraternity, as recorded in its own art and documents (viii). This approach has been fueled, in part, by an account book discovered in 2009 by Remco Sleiderink, which details the Brussels chapter’s expenditures from 1499-1516.
In the opening essay, Brecht Dewilde and Bram Vannieuwenhuyze examine a late seventeenth-century account of the confraternity’s history, property, and financial records. The text promotes the venerable origins and unmitigated progress of the devotion, glossing over “bumps in the road,” like the Calvinist rule in Brussels from 1581-85. Dewilde and Vannieuwenhuyze foreground the unusual amount of metadata in the property register, which “makes the confraternity’s history tangible” (18) through inventories of textiles, paintings, and jewels donated by powerful patrons, as well as carefully cited indulgences and papal bulls. This mode of history writing can be aptly termed “a story of accumulation – of splendour, wealth, and networks” (13).
In the second chapter, Susie Speakman Sutch investigates another manuscript: the confraternity’s membership registry, or Liber authenticus. Like an earthly version of the multitudinous names “inscribed in the Book of Life,” the volume contains a dizzying list of nobles, high-ranking clerics, rhetoricians, and ordinary worshipers (39). Analyzing the text, vellum, paper, watermarks, and illustrations, “quire by quire,” Sutch demonstrates that the book was compiled in the 1570s by Michael Aitsinger, whose well-known Leo Belgicus print famously anthropomorphized the Netherlandish provinces into a lion (28). She argues that an important roundel in the Liber authenticus should be accepted as a “model” or even “the proof copy” for a related roundel in Aitsinger’s Leo Belgicus (37).
One of the confraternity’s most visible contributions to civic life in Brussels was its seven plays dedicated to the Virgin’s Sorrows. Although their scripts do not survive, Remco Sleiderink’s essay approximates their content, staging, and financing. Citing the account book that he discovered, Sleiderink concludes that the plays were written successively over seven years by Jan Smeken. They explicated the Sorrows typologically, using props, costumes, and even special effects. Combatively trumpeting the confraternity’s virtues, the plays included interchanges between devils, who vainly parroted the arguments of detractors to the devotion.
Emily Thelen’s own essay also makes use of Sleiderink’s account register, this time to track musical and liturgical celebrations. The Burgundian-Habsburg elites have long occupied an integral place in the confraternity’s mythology of legitimacy and prestige. Thelen argues that the Brussels Seven Sorrows operated rather independently in its musical commissions. Her careful assembly of archival information paints a picture of a burgeoning institution, the modest resources of which necessitated hiring a constantly shifting assembly of singers and musicians to accompany high feasts, votive masses, and commemorative services.
The itemized finances of the Seven Sorrows from 1499-1516 also sheds light on artistic commissions. Edmond Roobaert and Trisha Rose Jacobs corroborate that the confraternity made the accouterments to its cult a budgetary priority. It relied on artisans who were confrères in the devotion, some of whom discounted their services, accepted payment in installments, and in one case worked only for the price of “gold and pigments” (104). The Seven Sorrows chapel borrowed tapestries and vestments and made do with lower-grade ornaments, but saving money was not its primary endeavor. For instance, it commissioned the renowned Leuven painter Albrecht Bouts for the central panel of an altarpiece.
Dagmar Eichberger’s essay categorizes the iconography of Seven Sorrows devotional prints and gauges their relevance to major centers of the cult. The Delft chapter controlled a pilgrimage to a miracle-working Pietà statue, and the fine engravings sold there frame the Virgin’s lament over Christ’s body in a reliquary-like armature, decorated with roundels of the remaining six Sorrows. A variant on this composition from Antwerp situates the Mater dolorosa at the center of a “wheel” of seven swords, with the blades pointing to her heart and the seven mysteries encircling her. Seven Sorrows iconography varied greatly and often merged with other images, including Marian cult icons from Rome, representations of Maria in sole, the Ecce Homo, and the Anna Selbdritt.
To conclude the volume, Tine L. Meganck and Sabine van Sprang track political and religious reform in the confraternity’s early seventeenth-century paintings by Wensel Cobergher and Theodoor van Loon. Both the Christological emphasis of Cobergher’s Lamentation and itssubstitution of four nails for the Virgin’s traditional “seven swords” point to principles of Tridentine reform. The intervention of Archdukes Albert and Isabella in the confraternity accords with a larger Habsburg promotion of Marian devotion, particularly in Cobergher’s seven-sided pilgrimage church at Scherpenheuvel.
Given the loss of so much of the confraternity’s furnishings and property, it is remarkable that the essays in this volume recreate the ideology and materiality of devotion in such detail. The chapters reference one another and progress fluidly.
Although the book features a range of disciplines, some readers may find the methodology and argumentation a little univocal. The majority of the essays are close readings of archival documents – in many cases, of the same document – and most authors come from either KU Leuven or the University of Ghent. The chronology is a marvelous addition to the beginning of the book, but it would have been helpful to have more introductory remarks on the theological history of the Seven Sorrows. These are, however, trivial critiques to an excellent volume.
Brigham Young University