Among the paintings attributed to Geertgen tot Sint Jans and his circle, a number of small-sized panels have a special place. Decker’s study concentrates on the ways in which these works served contemporary meditational techniques. The term “salvation” in the title is used in a double sense: alluding not only to the goal of personal redemption, but also to the devotional practices performed to achieve that end. During the fifteenth century, the author argues, salvation was understood in terms of a rule-oriented process whereby particular actions produced predictable results. Consequently, he introduces the concept of a “Technology of Salvation” as a method of self-fashioning in order to make one’s soul worthy of salvation. By situating these paintings within their socio-historical milieu, an attempt is made to demonstrate how they participated in this process of soul formation. Such an approach is presented as an alternative to the typologies and iconographic analyses of Erwin Panofsky, which, in Decker’s view, continue to dominate the study of fifteenth-century religious imagery.
The first chapter is devoted to Geertgen and his milieu. Karel van Mander’s life of the painter (1604) is analyzed as the initial historical account of Geertgen’s career. Attention is also drawn to an entry in the 1517 death records from St. Bavo’s, mentioning a “Ghaerbrandt, painter,” buried at St. John’s. The deceased, Decker opines, might be the same person listed as “Gerrit Gerritsz, brother the painter” in the Liber Memoriarum of the Knights of St. John Hospitaller in Haarlem. Van Mander states that Geertgen lived with these knightly monks without entering their religious order. On the basis of this identification, it is proposed that Geertgen died much later than generally believed, a hypothesis hard to accept. Not only is it questionable that the names Ghaerbrant and Gerrit were used to describe the same person, Van Mander’s account indicates that Geertgen may have died as early as 1485 and 1495 at the latest (see Stephan Kemperdick and Jochen Sander, “Die Winterthurer Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige und Geertgen tot Sint Jans,” Venite, Adoremus: Geertgen tot Sint Jans und die Anbetung der Könige, ed. Mariantonia Reinhard-Felice [Sammlung Oskar Reinhart `Am Römerholz´, Winterthur], Munich, 2007, pp. 23-59, esp. 30-34). Decker’s suggestion that Van Mander’s report of the artist’s early death may have been a literary trope is unfounded.
Geertgen must have been, according to the author, a so-called provenier within the Haarlem Commandery of St. John, which means that he exchanged his artistic production for food and lodging. As Van Mander notes, Geertgen painted a huge triptych for the Knights of St. John, of which only the two sides of the right wing have survived (Vienna). The small works which are related here to the Knights are undocumented. Each of the subsequent chapters focuses on one of these works.
The second chapter addresses a diptych, with The Madonna in Sole and The Crucifixion, in Rotterdam and Edinburgh, respectively. Decker writes that the Rotterdam Madonna is widely accepted as an original but that the Edinburgh Crucifixion is considered to be a copy of a lost original by Geertgen. Both panels, however, can be ascribed to a follower and there is no reason to assume a relation with the Hospitallers (see Vroege Hollanders: Schilderkunst van de late Middeleeuwen, eds. Friso Lammertse and Jeroen Giltaij, exh. cat. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam 2008, cat. no. 14, pp. 121-25; Molly Faries, “The Vienna wing panels by Geertgen tot Sint Jans and his drawing and painting technique,” Oud Holland, 2010, vol. 123, pp. 187-219, esp. 194, 214-215). These two images are analyzed with the help of cognitive theories and theological and devotional texts to reveal how the diptych helped transform the devout viewer’s inner self in pursuit of spiritual perfection. This process is characterized as a do-it-yourself salvation, although ultimately Christians depended on divine grace.
In the next chapter, Decker, taking it for granted that Geertgen lived into the sixteenth century, connects the Utrecht Man of Sorrows with indulgences the Haarlem Knights were allowed to supply around 1500. He suggests that the panel was part of a diptych placed in the church of the Commandery of St. John, near the confessional chair, where indulgences were obtained. By relating the painting to devotional texts such as the Meditationes Vitae Christus (ascribed to Johannes de Caulibus, who is mistakenly named John of Calabria) and to treatises on memory, the author proposes that the Man of Sorrows stimulated empathetic responses to Christ’s Passion, leading to contrition, a requirement for the purification of the soul through confession. Emphasizing the importance of contrition, he refers to Gerard Zerbolt of Zutphen’s De spiritualibus ascensionibus. Yet in this tract contrition precedes meditation on the Passion, which represents a higher grade of spiritual ascent. If we follow Zerbolt’s text, Geertgen’s image must have accompanied and stimulated affective states leading upward from contrition rather than towards it.
The fourth chapter analyzes the London Night Nativity, which, Decker supposes, might have adorned the chapter room of the Commandery. After examining how this painting invites beholders to engage with the narrative affectively, he relates the image to the efficacy of Christ’s birth for the rebirth of the human soul. To demonstrate how such theological interpretations entered vernacular thought, a treatise on meditation is cited, written by the founder of the Devotio moderna, Geert Grote. This text, however, is highly intellectual in tone and written in Latin. According to Decker, Geertgen’s painting offered his patrons virtuous exempla of humility and obedience to imitate on their path to salvation.
The fifth chapter discusses the Berlin St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness. Once again the chapter room of the Commandery is suggested as the site of a painting. The depiction of the order’s patron saint as sunken in contemplation and of the wilderness as a paradisiacal landscape is compared to contemporary theological views and devotional writings describing the soul as a wilderness called to be transformed through pious meditation into a flowering garden that blooms with virtues pleasing to God. The glassy stare and apparent absentmindedness of the Baptist demonstrates the highest state of meditation, unattainable for most devotees: imageless contemplation.
Decker’s conclusion addresses the panels within the historical perspective of the Reformation and Counter Reformation. He presents his analysis of these paintings as a starting point for investigating other devotional objects, such as prayer beads, devotional prints, and books of hours, pleading again for studying the functions of religious images instead of reducing them to types by means of iconographical categories.
This study gives rise to some methodological remarks. First, the term “salvation” should not be used for referring both to redemption and to the ways that it is reached. Although acknowledging that ultimately the human soul depended upon God’s mercy, Decker postulates a “machine-like cause and effect” relationship between means and ends, which makes him speak of a “Technology of Salvation”. Thus, he does no justice to the fact that, according to Zerbolt of Zutphen and other members of the Devotio moderna, humanity should live inter timorem et spem, as Gerrits aptly entitled his study on Zerbolt (G.H. Gerrits, Inter timoren et spem: A study of the theological thought of Gerard Zerbolt of Zutphen (1367-1398), Leiden, 1986).
A machine-like cause and effect is problematic, not only from a theological standpoint but also in the light of devotional practices. Because the final goal of meditation – imageless contemplation – was often unattainable, Decker points out that “Christians balanced their meditational practices between abstract ideals and tangible results” (p. 137). Such balancing seems hardly compatible with a mechanical process.
Another point of criticism concerns the way Decker distinguishes his study by differentiating his efforts from those of Panofsky. He would have done better to elucidate how his approach relates to more recent work by scholars such as Sixten Ringbom, Hans Belting, Craig Harbison, James Marrow, Henk van Os, Jeffrey Hamburger, and others. Thanks to their work the function of late medieval images within contemporary culture has been extensively explored.
However, these objections should not detract from the real value of this study: the careful and thorough manner in which images are analyzed and situated within their historical contexts by comparing or relating them to thoughts on cognition and memory, and to theological and devotional expositions. An additional merit of Decker’s study is his resistance to the temptation of trying to pinpoint a specific text as the direct source for a painting. The reader is presented with a wide range of observations and interpretations, leaving room for dialogue and debate. I was most struck by the proposed insights into the meaning and function of Geertgen’s St. John in the Wilderness. This beautiful and well argued interpretation throws new light on the painting and proves that iconology is not a dead end, but still fresh and alive. At the same time, this research into paintings that originated within the same circle gives rise to the question of how far their appearances were determined by devotional ideals or by artistic intentions. Should the remarkable effects of light in the London Night Nativity (only) be explained by theological and devotional considerations or (also) by the fact that Geertgen, basing his work on Hugo van der Goes’s now lost Night Nativity, saw them as a pictorial challenge? Even if such questions seem difficult to answer, iconology should not ignore them.
University of Groningen