The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe, 1300 to 1500

Article excerpt

The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe, 1300 to 1500. By Henk van Os, with Hans Nieuwdorp, Bernhard Ridderbos, Eugene Honee. Translated from the Dutch by Michael Doyle. (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1994. Pp. 192; 85 color illustrations; 110 black and white illustrations. $49.50.)

This is not an easy study to define. It is at once a catalogue accompanying an exhibition of the same title and a lavishly illustrated book intended to last beyond the exhibition of the featured objects. While exhibition catalogues by nature often play a dual role, this one reveals a greater than usual intimacy between the works chosen for exhibition and the ideas governing the historical interpretation. The author describes in an unusual foreword the exhibition parameters, emphasizing a wide geographical spread of the "best objects from Dutch collections made for a "private room."Van Os explains that the Director of Exhibitions "did not want the show to be accompanied by a hefty tome containing profound scholarly analyses of each work . . " but rather to use the objects as a "framework for a straightforward narrative aimed at the general public." I am not sure precisely what sort of "general public" would understand certain aspects of this text (the "Hague scene" is hardly a common way to refer to an image), though it is an engaging source for undergraduate students of the late Middle Ages. If not a general public, then who is the reader of this book?

Although not meant to be a scholarly "tome," the book is for scholars nonetheless. First of all, the illustrations are magnificent. For those scholars who could not view the exhibition, the plates in the book, along with the author's precise and evocative descriptions, convey something of the physical presence of works that late medieval viewers themselves found so compelling. Since no specialist would deny the exhibition its scholarly contribution, the claim should be extended to the book for sustaining the visual considerations long after the exhibition closed its doors. The text reminds specialists that devotion had an earthy side: that people then as now kneel, say prayers out loud, fondle religious items, and like to keep in touch with God while "on the road." There is a range of details for scholars to reconsider. …