John Oliver Hand, Catherine A. Metzger, and Ron Spronk, Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych [Cat. exh. National Gallery of Art, Washington, November 12, 2006 – February 4, 2007; Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, March 3 – May 27, 2007]. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, in association with Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 2006. 339 pp, numerous color plates. ISBN 0-300-12155-5.
John Oliver Hand and Ron Spronk (eds.), Essays in Context: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Art Museums; New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2006. 255 pp, 11 color, numerous b&w illus. ISBN 13: 978-0-300-12140-7.
Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych serves as the catalogue for the exhibition of the same title, held at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. The product of more than six years of intensive research by an international team who examined 65 panels in more than 31 different public and private collections, this massive and beautifully designed volume is the first ever dedicated to the subject of the Netherlandish diptych. It is a “must have” for anyone with an interest in panel painting of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Originally conceived by Ron Spronk and John Hand, the project was quickly adopted with the full and enthusiastic support from the National Gallery of Art, the Koninklijk Museum, and the Straus Conservation Center of the Harvard University Art Museums. Particularly noteworthy in this equation is the inclusion of Catherine A. Metzger, Senior Paintings Conservator at the NGA as a full partner in the development of the exhibition project and in the authorship of the catalogue. This rare and commendable collaboration between curators and conservators reinforces the vital and synergistic bond that is essential for thorough object-based research today.
Two introductory essays open the volume. The first discusses the origins and variations of the diptych format within the history of Netherlandish painting. The second essay deals with the material aspects and technical analysis of the diptychs in question. Following these essays, the 40 individual catalogue entries are arranged in alphabetical order according to artist. Each entry includes color plates that illustrate all of the painted sides for each diptych/pendant reconstruction. These color plates are highlighted from the text by black backgrounds, thus simulating the diptych format within the pages of the book. Panels smaller than the 9 ½ x 12 ½ inch page format – such as Gerard David’s exquisite diptych of The Virgin and Child with Two Angels and Christ Appearing to His Mother – are reproduced in actual size.
Oddly, the footnotes, provenance data, exhibition history, and bibliography for each entry have been relegated to an appendix at the back of the volume. This makes the physical use of the volume cumbersome and makes it somewhat difficult to read and appreciate each entry in a fluid and uninterrupted manner. A detailed, illustrated Technical Appendix provides extensive analytical data for most of the paintings in the catalogue, while a comprehensive and thoroughly researched bibliography completes the volume.
The catalogue features entries and technical data for two diptychs not included at either venue of the exhibition: Jan van Scorel’s Berlin-Tambov diptych and Rogier van der Weyden’s devotional diptych of Jean de Froimont. Despite the best efforts of the organizers, these panels were not allowed to travel at the last minute. Happily, the decision was made to include these entries, along with new photography and the latest research findings as an added bonus to the catalogue.
The three authors share equal credit and responsibility for all aspects of the National Gallery of Art publication. Neither the introductory essays nor the catalogue entries are attributed to any one author. Yet, through skillful editing, the catalogue manages to achieve a balanced tone and consistency of voice that is rarely found in publications prepared by multiple hands.
Unlike the alphabetical arrangement of the catalogue entries, the Washington installation followed a chronological path, within which the visitor was guided through various themes. A limited number of text panels served as topical guides for the installation. Many panels were reunited after centuries apart, as was Michel Sittow’s diptych of the Virgin and Child with Diego de Guevara (Berlin and Washington) – an event justifiably noted as “cause for celebration.” Other pairs, previously understood to be diptychs, have now been identified as pendants, such as Albrecht Bouts’s Man of Sorrows and Mater Dolorosa (both from the Harvard University Art Museums).
The first gallery of the installation introduced visitors to the basic diptych format, drawing distinctions between true, hinged diptych panels, pendant panels, and later reconstructions. Here, the visitor was treated to stellar examples by the founders of the diptych genre, including Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation (Madrid), Robert Campin’s Trinity and Virgin and Child in an Interior (St. Petersburg), and the reunited front and back facing panels of Rogier van der Weyden’s early St. George and the Dragon and Virgin and Child (Washington and Madrid). The second gallery was dedicated to the theme of the half-length devotional diptych as perfected by the mature Rogier van der Weyden. Two spectacular examples – the diptych of Jean de Gros (Tournai and Chicago), and the diptych of Phillppe de Croÿ (San Marino and Antwerp) – provide ample proof of Rogier’s mastery of concept, design, and technique.
The installation continued with galleries dedicated to the evolution of the religious diptych in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the adaptation of the diptych format to secular imagery and portraiture. Hans Memling’s remarkably preserved 1487 diptych of the Virgin and Child with Maarten van Nieuwenhove took center stage in the third gallery, while a special section of the fourth room was dedicated to later diptych variations of Jan van Eyck’s Virgin in the Church (c.1437-39). Quentin Massys’s pendant portraits of Desiderius Erasmus and Peter Gillis, painted for Thomas More in 1517, served as a superb example of the adaptation of the diptych format to portraiture in the sixteenth century.
Whenever possible, panels were presented without vitrines or reflective glazing, allowing for an unexpected level of direct personal access and (much to the dismay of the NGA security officers) very close scrutiny on the part of the viewer. In several instances, diptych panels were mounted in angled “opposition” to each other, thus recreating or at least approximating their original orientation.
Essays in Context: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych serves as a companion volume to the Prayers and Portraits exhibition catalogue. The volume is the result of two round-table discussions sponsored by a Collaborative Research Grant from the Getty Foundation, and published with support from the Parnassus Foundation and the Harvard University Art Museums. With contributions written by thirteen scholars in the field, these essays address a variety of topics related to many of the panels included in the Prayers and Portraits exhibition. General topics include: the origins and history of diptychs (Laura D. Gelfand and Victor M. Schmidt); variations on the themes, content, and format of diptychs (Lorne Campbell, Carol J. Purtle, Hugo van der Velden, and Yvonne Yiu); the function, purpose, and reception of diptychs (Reindert L. Falkenburg, Ivan Gaskell, Maximiliaan P.J. Martens, and Till-Holger Borchert); and the physical aspects of diptychs and their use (Marina Belozerskaya, Peter Klein, and Hélène Verougstraete).
Smaller in size and decidedly less handsome in design than the exhibition catalogue, the format of the essay volume is consistent with scholarly journals in which footnotes are included at the end of each essay. The volume is enhanced by numerous black and white images and 11 color plates. A checklist of works in the exhibition provides a useful tool for cross-reference to the exhibition catalogue. Numerous references to un-illustrated works require that the reader of the companion volume also have the exhibition catalogue in hand to understand fully the essays. Unfortunately, the disparate size and visual appeal of the volumes makes it somewhat challenging to appreciate the interdependent relationship between the two publications.
Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych presents an astonishing level of research, scholarship, and technical data on the history, context, and original function of the Netherlandish diptych. Together with its companion volume Essays in Context, this catalogue represents an unprecedented summary of the state-of-research on this topic to date, and presents a visually stimulating experience for the specialist and the general reader alike.
Nancy E. Zinn
The Walters Art Museum