Experience art like a 15th-century monk at the Frick

An upcoming exhibition pairs works by Jan Van Eyck and Petrus Christus, including a piece of devotional "clickbait"

A work of devotional "clickbait": Jan van Eyck and Workshop, The Virgin and Child with St. Barbara, St. Elizabeth and Jan Vos (around 1441-43) The Frick Collection, New York

A pair of Old Master paintings used by a 15th-century monk for devotion will be reunited at New York's Frick Collection next year in the show The Charterhouse of Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus and Jan Vos (18 September-13 January 2019). The works will be shown in a very small gallery, about the size of a monk’s cell, “to evoke a bit of these former ways of interaction [with works] and hopefully make people engage with the art of this period in a new way… so it’s not [seen as] a dusty old painting,” says Emma Capron, a curatorial fellow at the Frick, who is organising the exhibition.

The show centres around two oil on panel paintings commissioned by Vos, a prior of the Bruges Charterhouse of Genadedal: The Virgin and Child with St Barbara and Jan Vos, also know as the “Exeter Madonna” (around 1445-50), by Christus, on loan from Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, and The Virgin and Child with St Barbara, St Elizabeth and Jan Vos (around 1441-43) by Van Eyck and his workshop, in the Frick’s collection. Around ten objects in total will be shown, including Petrus Christus’s Portrait of a Carthusian (1446) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection (probably depicting a monk in the same charterhouse as Vos) and prayer beads.

The Exeter Madonna, in which Vos is shown being introduced to the Virgin (who was central to Carthusian worship), is essentially a petition to save Vos’s soul, and “would have helped him in his prayer to visualise himself entering this realm”, Capron says. The panel—around the size of a page in a book—was made to hang in Vos’s cell for private devotion. (Carthusians were an austere and silent order which emphasised solitude and contemplation.) The show is a chance to experience the work up close as Vos would have, and enjoy its fine details, as it is usually shown locked away in a display case at the Gemäldegalerie.

The Frick Madonna—considered Van Eyck’s last work, completed by his workshop after his death in 1441—was a memorial epitaph painting to attract prayers for Vos’s salvation, made for a common area of the charterhouse. Vos requested that a bishop friend of his attach an indulgence to the painting, a series of prayers to be recited in front of the work to shave 40 days off of Vos’s time in purgatory—but which could also function for another person’s soul (including the viewer's). “He made sure to attach some sort of clickbait, basically,” Capron says, an incentive for people to “use” the work.

Devotional objects were tools for salvation—and could be made to touch, smell, or even lick, Capron says. She has chosen to include a contemporary book that is in poor condition to show how the image was worn away by the hands of many people who would touch an image of the Virgin to obtain her protection. “The damage itself tells a very interesting story,” she says, and is “almost emotional” to observe—which will hopefully make those who used the book for devotion centuries ago seem “less abstract somehow—and less distant”.