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Karolien De Clippel, Katharina Van Cauteren and Katlijne Van der Stighelen (eds), The Nude and the Norm in the Early Modern Low Countries (Brepols, 2011)

Karolien De Clippel, Katharina Van Cauteren and Katlijne Van der Stighelen (eds), The Nude and the Norm in the Early Modern Low Countries (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011). ISBN: 978-2-503-53569-2, 220 pp., €65.00.

Reviewed by Amy Orrock


[1] In 1563 the Council of Trent issued a decree stating that ‘one should avoid all that is lascivious [in art], so that images are not painted or adorned with a beauty that arouses carnal desire’. In the treatises published by clerics following this decree it was evident that lascivious image was generally synonymous for nude image. Central to the production of art for centuries, the nude and its powers of seduction were to become highly problematic in the early modern period. Whilst the infamous Italian example of loincloths being added to the naked figures in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement is well known, this volume considers what happened to nude bodies on display in the North.

[2] This collection of essays would certainly have benefitted from a longer foreword exploring the connections between the contributions and contextualizing them within wider art-historical debates regarding the ‘northern nude’. In an all-too-brief introductory paragraph the editors simply state that they seek to ‘clarify’ the ‘ambiguity’ that made the nude such an appealing and prestigious subject despite resistance from the official moral. Nonetheless, the essays are engaging and the range of methodologies that they adopt serves to highlight from a variety of angles the tension that existed in the period between ethics and aesthetics. Contributors attempt to piece together the realities of studio practice, speculate upon patterns of domestic and devotional display and explore the different standards applied to male and female nudes and ideal and non-ideal bodies. In so doing they outline a myriad of ways in which moral strictures were successfully negotiated in order to preserve both artistic integrity and norms of decency.

[3] The meaning of the book’s three sub-headings is not very clear. The first group, ‘Model & Make-Up’, is the most cohesive; all four essays seem to address the links between artists’ working practices and the creation of life-like nudes. Eric Jan Sluijter’s opening essay is drawn from his recent study on Rembrandt’s nudes and their reception in the Low Countries. He argues that Rembrandt first rejected classical ideals in the early and controversial study of A Nude Woman seated on a Mound (1631) and by the 1650s was routinely working ‘from the life’, producing studies of nudes with unidealized bodies and individualized faces. Erna Kok is similarly concerned with identifying when Northern artists truly began working from live nude models. Kok explores how the biographer’s myth of the erotic relationship between the artist and his model often disguised the realities of seventeenth-century studio practice, where life models were commonly prostitutes and artists were more likely to make use of model books, antiques sculptures, casts and their male assistants in the creation of convincing nudes. Addressing studio aids in more detail, Victoria Sancho Lobis considers how printed drawing books were used for artistic training, concluding that students learned by copying detailed fragments of bodies that were male and frequently écorché. Fleshing out or ‘colouring in’ these outlines is the subject of Paul Taylor’s essay. Taking as its starting point the critique of ‘unnatural flesh’ in portraits by Rembrandt and Rubens found in Gérard de Lairesse’s Groot Schilderboek, Taylor explores the dilemmas faced by artists wishing to create convincing flesh tones.

[4] Grouped under the sub-heading ‘Matrix’, the essays in the second section consider the reception of the nude within a wider cultural milieu. Hubert Meeus examines images in parallel with the theatre, reflecting on the shared problems of staging narratives involving nude figures with decorum, from Adam and Eve to Andromeda and Dido. Meeus concludes that in reality there was probably very little nudity on the early modern stage and speculates upon whether images may have functioned as dumb scenes (‘vertoning’) within certain plays. Johan Verberckmoes’ exploration of jests about nudity demonstrates how the norms of a society can often be determined by its transgressions. He argues that seventeenth-century jokes about exposed breasts and buttocks were grounded in the Christian notion of the shameful naked body and attained their humour by reversing civilized norms. Ralph Dekoninck’s essay focuses on Post-Tridentine religious literature, specifically the reaction of the Leuven theologian Johannes Molanus, who voiced a concern over pictures that might ‘provoke some to lust’. Tracing the roots of the link between lust and art, Dekoninck argues that the real issue in the sixteenth century was artistic innovations, with the moralists opposing precisely the kind of excessive virtuosity that artists were striving to achieve.

[5] There can be no doubt that official dogma did impact upon the display of art in the early modern home, as demonstrated by Veerle De Laet’s fascinating study of two hundred probate inventories and the descriptions of nude paintings within them. Comparing household inventories from the court city of Brussels and the mercantile hub of Antwerp, De Laet finds a marked difference in the appetite for and display of paintings containing nudes. More fundamentally, De Laet’s conclusions serve to contextualize the entire volume of essays by revealing that the number of nudes found in galleries and auction houses today belies their marginal nature: within her sample, nude subjects accounted for just 3% of the total pictures inventoried.

[6] The essays in the final section, titled ‘Measure’, are all firmly grounded in the history of the Low Countries. Taking two early seventeenth-century Diana paintings by Hendrick de Clerck, Katharina Van Cauteren argues against the traditional reading of the Diana subject as titillating and erotic. Instead, Van Cauteren discusses architectural details in the landscape settings that connect the nude goddesses to the Archdukes, Albert and Isabella. This suggests that they were the likely patrons of the painting and that Isabella specifically wished to be identified as chaste and good; a new Diana, triumphing over lasciviousness. Fiona Healy’s essay approaches the subject of male nudity in Netherlandish painting with a broad brush and finds many aspects worthy of further scholarly pursuit. Dealing primarily with the sixteenth century, Healy considers the clear distinctions between what was considered decorous when depicting a male and a female nude, and repeats the point found in many of the other contributions: that Biblical narratives were often the safest way for artists to respectably clothe the nude.

[7] With his Counter-Reformation sympathies and love of fleshy nudes, it would be impossible to ignore Rubens within this collection; he is the subject of two of the final essays. Marie Geraerts takes a close look at Rubens’ Feast of Venus (c.1637), which depicts no fewer than fifty-five nude and partially dressed figures. Informed by a re-reading of the classical sources and the modern aids of X-radiographs and infrared reflectogram, Geraerts proposes a more sensual reading of this late work. Finally, Karolien De Clippel’s essay neatly draws together many of the themes of the volume by considering the ways in which Rubens’ nudes may have been altered during the period. Marshaling evidence from documents, oil sketches and finished paintings, De Clippel concludes that some of the nude figures in Rubens’ altarpieces appear to have had clothing added and draperies enhanced, and may even have been physically curtained-off during the early modern period. However, these concessions to modesty are balanced by examples of Rubens’ robust resistance to moral critics, with the artist openly defending the artistic value of nudity in his work to Cardinals and publishers and, on occasion, winning. This diverse collection of essays demonstrates the value of investigating a large topic (the nude) at a specific cultural moment. The findings serve to enrich our understanding of the ‘northern nude’, and will inform and entertain all scholars of the early modern period.

November, 2014

Carolyn Diskant Muir, Saintly Brides and Bridegrooms: The Mystic Marriage in Northern Renaissance Art (Brepols, 2012)

Carolyn Diskant Muir, Saintly Brides and Bridegrooms: The Mystic Marriage in Northern Renaissance Art (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012). ISBN: 978-1-905375-87-5, x + 198 pp., €100.00.

Reviewed by Catharine Ingersoll


[1] Mystic marriage as a pictorial theme is most often associated with one individual, St. Catherine of Alexandria, who was frequently depicted in late medieval and Renaissance art receiving a wedding band from the infant Christ. Carolyn Diskant Muir, in her comprehensive study, Saintly Brides and Bridegrooms: The Mystic Marriage in Northern Renaissance Art, demonstrates that notions of mystic marriage – a metaphor for the ineffable experience of a human soul’s spiritual union with the divine – were important iconographic subjects for other holy figures as well. This extensively researched volume, an expansion of the author’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Manchester, provides ample visual examples in its 100 black-and-white images and 17 color plates. Concentrating on the art of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and northern France in the years between about 1300 and 1550, Muir draws a number of convincing conclusions about the various meanings behind the mystic marriage theme, especially in terms of the interpretive implications of the gender of both the depicted saint and the presumed viewer.

[2] In her introductory Chapter, Muir traces the spiritual and religious tradition of mystic marriage from its Judaic roots in the Song of Songs to the ecstatic experiences of late medieval female mystics. The Latin word for the soul (anima) is a feminine noun, which in the medieval period facilitated the metaphor of a marriage with Christ for all believers, regardless of gender. Since the primary characteristic of mystic marriage is the ecstatic intimacy of the soul with Jesus, Muir explains that visual motifs other than the giving of a ring can also signify mystic marriage. She identifies only five saintly figures for whom a corpus of images exist from this time period that portray such a spiritual union with Christ: St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Agnes, St. John the Evangelist, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and the Blessed Henry Suso. Each of the book’s five Chapters focuses on one of these holy persons, with the author addressing the saint’s vita and other textual sources for the mystic marriage theme; iconographic conventions and motifs found in the imagery; and the context and audience for the specific works of art under discussion.

[3] Muir’s examination of artworks depicting mystic marriage demonstrates idiosyncrasies among the iconography, depending on the saint. The mystic marriage of St. Catherine is by far the most common subject, and of the five saints under discussion she is the only one whose union with Christ was also portrayed by artists in southern and central Europe. St. Agnes’s iconography is revealed to be a continuation of the St. Catherine theme, as both virgin saints are most often shown in adoration of the infant Christ, who gives his bride a wedding ring. St. John the Evangelist’s union with Christ is denoted by an embrace, often involving John resting his head on his savior’s breast, a motif taken from the Last Supper. Similarly, in St. Bernard’s vision of the crucified Christ, Jesus reaches down from the cross to embrace the Cistercian monk. Neither St. John nor St. Bernard is ever shown participating in an actual marriage ceremony. Henry Suso is a rather unique case, as he appears as a bridegroom to Eternal Wisdom, a figure that is shown alternatively as male and female but always functions as an allegorical stand-in for Jesus. In some images Suso and Eternal Wisdom embrace, while in others they exchange wedding bands.

[4] Issues of media and regional popularity are also discussed over the course of the five Chapters. While images of St. Catherine and St. Agnes appear most frequently in panel paintings, their spiritual marriages can also be found in print media, manuscript illustrations, sculpture and even metalwork. Contrasting with this situation are the images of Christ embracing St. John, the corpus of which is dominated by carved, polychrome limewood sculptures. These stem mostly from Swabia in southern Germany, suggesting a special affinity of that region for this particular saint. Likewise, images of St. Agnes are specific to the lower Rhine region. St. Bernard appears most often in works made in German-speaking regions of northern Europe, and can be found in a variety of media. Blessed Henry Suso, on the other hand, is only depicted in manuscript illuminations accompanying texts of his own authorship.

[5] In the book’s conclusion, Muir synthesizes her findings, relating them to broader religious trends of the era that emphasized a personal experience of the divine, such as the Devotio Moderna movement and late medieval mysticism. She also addresses the issue of gender as it relates to the diverse ways of representing a mystic marriage. She outlines the differences between the usual depictions of the male saints and female saints as found in the artworks she identified in the previous Chapters. The men are shown as physically intimate with Christ, who appears as an adult and embraces the saint. An embrace between two males was a normal occurrence in medieval culture, designating a power relationship and protection. In contrast to the ecstatic experiences of contemporary female mystics, the women shown in these images do not engage in physical intimacy with Christ, who is portrayed as an infant, but they do receive a ring that is suggestive of an actual wedding ceremony. This accords with contemporary practice for female religious, who received rings when inducted into the order and acted out their maternal instincts by focusing their devotions on Christ as a baby. Again unlike contemporary mysticism, absolutely no erotic undertones are present in the images of St. Catherine and St. Agnes because the most important characteristic of women saints during this time period was virginity. Given that many of the artworks under consideration were intended for convents and monasteries, their primary functions would have been as stimuli to devotion, with the saints shown therein serving as models for an intimate spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ. Muir’s broad study of the iconography of mystic marriage skillfully reveals the rich connections among textual sources, visual imagery and contemporary piety that were at play in the religious culture of pre-Reformation northern Europe.

The University of Texas at Austin, November 2014