Arts Essays - Devotional Diptych


Devotional Diptych

As one enters the Chrysler’s medieval room, one is not immediately drawn to the Andachtsbild nestled in the corner. It hangs unobtrusively, waiting for a viewer’s quiet contemplation. Once discovered, the viewer sees Christ, Man of Sorrows, painted by Aelbrechts Bouts (1455-1549). This oil painting depicts a “close-up” of the head and shoulders of a crucified Christ. He holds his hands face out showing the wounds inflicted at his Crucifixion. His robe is crimson, his skin a translucent cool puce green juxtaposed with his red cloak. He wears a braided crown of thorns, his face tear-streaked, showing the shadows of pain. His hair is long and dark, and he wears a beard. His head tilts down, and his eyes look toward the bottom right of the canvas; they are bloodshot. Christ is set against a gold background reminiscent of Byzantine art. It is dotted red to repeat his open wounds and bloody face, underscoring Christ as a holy icon removed from a specific time or place. It is speculated that the painting was originally paired with an image of the Virgin Mary in her role as Mater Dolorosa. Why did these images, especially Andachtsbild diptychs, resonate with the Northern personality; what are their origins and function? This paper will endeavor to explore briefly the development of devotional diptychs and their function, the society in which they gained popularity, and Aelbrechts Bouts, the artist and his work.

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Development of the devotional diptych

So what is a devotional diptych? Simply, it is a picture or other work of art consisting of two parts facing one another, hinged together to create a ‘book’. It was created to encourage an intimate connection with the religious figures portrayed and to encourage petitions for salvation, to intercede on behalf of the person praying; and, in the case of the devotional portrait diptych, the donor. Devotional Images and diptychs are not new; their origins can be traced to the consular diptychs of the Greeks around the sixth century before Christ.

There are four major types of devotional diptychs; the Man of Sorrows facing the Mater Dolorosa was based on an ancient Byzantine prototype. The double portrait, developed during the fifteenth century, showed a married couple; created to commemorate their marriage or the birth of a child. Last, the devotional portrait, in half or full-length, portrayed a donor portrait facing the Virgin and Child.

Diptychs can be rectangular or gabled and folded in half to protect the images within if moved. The diptychs form made it easy for the Renaissance patron to carry it with them to practice their devotions wherever they wished. It could be held in one’s hands, placed slightly open on a pillow, or placed ‘standing’ on an altar.

The most common devotional diptych was that of the Man of Sorrows, like our work in the Chrysler. This image developed from the Byzantine epitaphios image, which possibly dates to the eighth century. By the 13th- century it was becoming common in the West as an Andachtsbilder for private contemplation and prayer. They were immensely popular among the Catholic faithful and used to stress the accessibility and human nature of the Madonna and her suffering Son.

History of the Netherlands 1450 - 1550

Before one can begin to understand the power and use of these images, one needs to understand the historical context in which they arose. “From the late Middle Ages on, patronage of the arts in the northern Netherlands was a characteristic feature of the culture of the Church, the courts, the aristocracy, the cities, corporate groups, burgher families, and in later centuries, cultural organizations and individuals.”

The earliest court of the northern Netherlands, that of Duke Albert I of Bavaria (r1358 – 1404) commissioned a large collection of art. A later regent, John of Bavaria, brought Jan van Eyck to The Hague in 1422. A brief decline lay with the Dukes of Burgundy while seated in Dijon and Brussels. Art patronage was revived under Mary of Guelders who corresponded with her relative Jean, Duc de Berry. Yet most works were underestimated in that they were patronized by a woman. Eventually, it is the Valois Court which had the most impact on the devotional diptych and which this paper will focus.

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‘The Burgundian Netherlands is a region consisting of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and northern France ruled by the Valois Court, a cadet line, from the end of the fourteenth to the end of the 15th - century. Their rule was a turbulent time of territorial expansion and political control; it was also an era of great artistic productivity and cultural growth. Burgundian Netherlands was one of Europe's richest centers of commerce, agriculture, maritime and the arts.

The Court attracted some of the most talented artists of the Renaissance period. Philip the Good (1396–1467, r. 1419–67) and Charles the Bold (1433–1477, r. 1467–77) were celebrated art patrons. The large court was based in Brussels around 1441, but because the dukes liked to travel from one residence to another, their impact and patronage were widespread and stimulated the arts throughout the region. Bruges, a favored destination of the dukes, was home to such masters as Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, Hans Memling, and Gerard David. Appointed official court painter by Philip the Good, van Eyck undertook artistic commissions and traveled extensively on the duke's behalf. Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400–1464) settled in Brussels and, although not an official court painter, painted for Burgundian court. We see manuscript illumination, small-scale religious panels and votive images in precious metal grow. These objects allow us insight into the devotional practices of the ducal circle and an influence on commoners as well.

The Valois court impact on the commissioning of devotional diptychs was impressive. “Evidence from the Chartreuse of Champmol, as well as from the ducal inventories, shows that the dukes were the first to commission and possess devotional diptychs” The first visual evidence associating the a diptych with the court is that of the Virgin on one wing and Christ on the other, seen in a commemorative picture, showing Eues IV presenting Pope Clement VI, owned by the Duke of Burgundy. Their presence stimulated local crafts and industries, such as the production of metalwork for armor and weapons, stone sculpture for funeral monuments, enamel and silver work for everyday and ceremonial objects, and tapestries, and expressed the prevalent court taste for luxury goods.

Following the accession of Charles the Bold's daughter, Mary of Burgundy (1457–1482) in 1477, and her marriage to the future Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian in the same year, the impact of Burgundization was slowed and diluted. In the early sixteenth century, Mary and Maximilian's daughter, Margaret of Austria (1480–1530), who would become regent of the Netherlands, initiated an ambitious revival of Burgundian patronage—but under Habsburg rule.

Religious influence: The Church, Devotio Moderna, and the emergence of the Reformation

From the late Middle Ages on, patronage of the arts was a characteristic of the Church. The Church sought to furnish cathedrals which inspired patronage at smaller ecclesiastical establishments (parish churches, collegiate churches, convents, and monasteries), local courts, laity, civic organizations and the individual.

Devotio Moderna

A group of Christian humanists sought to study scriptures in their original languages and to return to the first principles of their religion. Intent on spreading religious understanding, they began to translate the Bible into the vernacular languages. The end of the fifteenth century saw a popular spiritual revival of a more mystical nature, characterized by such works as Thomas à Kempis' Imitatio Christi. The Renaissance belief in the "perfectibility of man" made people less content with things as they were and more interested in improving the here and now. The church was “corrupt”: holding vast wealth, exercising enormous political power and waging war.

The Devotio moderna movement, (developed by Gerard Groote and Florent Radewijns) emerged. They stressed the importance of an individual’s inner life, with great emphasis on meditation. Following the example of the primitive church, they lived a devout, communal life, wore simple clothing, practiced religious and spiritual exercises which centered on meditation on sin, death, judgment, heaven and hell, and the humanity of Christ. Their aim was to serve God and to induce others, by their example, to seek salvation. The Brethren also maintained dormitories or hostels for poor pupils attending local schools.

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“The Brethren were encouraged to perform spiritual exercises that were within the capacity of all, including meditation before a devotional image or after reading a text. Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64), a supporter of the Brethren, summed up in a sermon in 1451 what must have been the attitude of many of the Brethren towards art: ‘All images are worthwhile; they are venerable insofar as they call to mind the saints and symbolize their lives.’ Owing to the number of pupils in the Brethren’s care, these ideas were pervasive and must have spread throughout the artistic community. The apparent crudeness and realistic exactness and the emphasis on expressiveness to be found in much 15th-century northern Netherlandish art owes something to the ideas of the Devotio moderna.” It must be noted that commissioning of ostentatious works was not the in the vain of the Devotio Moderna. They saw it as a financial burden and a project motivated by pride and vanity.

The laity (both Devotio Moderna and others not associated with their movement) felt the church had more interest in lining their pockets than in promoting the welfare of their "flocks". The Christian humanists criticized these all-too-human failings, while striving for a purer church. There was no particular intention of breaking from the church at this time, merely a passion for improving it.


In 1517, a monk, named Martin Luther, produced his 99 Thesis. A dispute about who was entitled to a cut of the revenues generated by papal indulgences provoked the controversy. It was Luther's belief that Christians are saved by faith, and faith alone, and that no amount of works (including the purchase of indulgences) made any difference at all. This along with the “media explosion”, and an increase in literacy created a powerful effect on the populace. The right to read and interpret scripture lead to the throwing off of the chains of papal and ecclesiastical authority, and a responsibility of laypersons in their own religious devotion and piety.

It is this opulent and devout society of Aelbrect Bouts in which the devotional diptych reached its Zenith. Before we conclude let’s look at Aelbrect Bouts and his place and works, in this tumultuous time.

Who was Aelbrect Bouts?

Aelbrect Bouts, considered a Flemish primitive, was the son of Dieric Bouts, official painter of Leuven and a founder of the Haarlem school of painting with Albert van Ouwater and Geertgen tot Sint Jans. Dieric was known for his contribution to 15th - century Netherlandish painting. Not much is known about him or his work.

Aelbrect was born in Leuven c. 1452-5 d 1549, and married twice. Described as a ‘moderate painter’, he established a workshop which specialized in modest devotional works and were sold in the market at Antwerp. However, as only three works carried his monogram, the attribution of numerous works presumed to have been painted by Aelbrect and his workshop are questionable, especially when one considers the practice of mass production in the Antwerp market. Most works attributed to him are of the primitive iconography in the form of a diptych with a bust of Christ as the Man of Sorrows, juxtaposed with a bust of the praying Virgin, Mater Dolorsoa. “He also perpetuated compositions invented by his father like the Last Supper and Holy Sacrament, and Christ in the House of Simon.”

His style compared to that of his father’s is heavier, that is, the drapery on his figures has intricate pockets of folds concealing the form of the body. His brushwork is thicker, colors darker and muddier. He frequently followed the compositions of his father and therefore that of Rogier van der Weyden, as well as Hugo van der Goes. “His designs tend to be overcrowded, and in his landscape backgrounds the clarity in spatial projection is obscured by the repetition of landscape motifs… reflecting the transition between the fifteenth century style of his father and the eclectic style of Antwerp Mannerism prevalent in the early decades of the sixteenth century.”


In conclusion, the devotional diptych, although not new, gained popularity predominately in the Burgundian Netherlands due to the expansion and mobility of the Valois court and the desire of lay persons to take a more active role in their own personal relationship with God. The religious movement of the Devotio Moderna and Martin Luther influenced Aelbrechts Bouts, like many artists of his time, catered to the Netherlandish community by creating works of arts for personal devotion.

Works Cited

Conway, Martin: “New Light on the Flemish Primitives” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 48, No. 274. (Jan., 1926), pp. 24+28-31.

Davis, Virginia: “Brethren of the Common Life” Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, [3/3/2008],

Friedman, Jane B. An Iconological Examination of the Half-length Devotional Portrait Diptych in the Netherlands, 1460-1530. Dissertation, Los Angeles, University of California, 1977.

Gelfand, Laura Deborah. Fifteenth-century Netherlandish Devotional Portrait Diptychs: Origins and Function. Dissertation, Case Western Reserve University, 1994.

Hand, John Oliver, Metzger, Catherine A., and Spronk, Ron, eds. Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych. Washington: National Gallery of Art, Yale University Press and New Haven and London, 2006.

Maere, R. transcribed by Tinkler, Michael C. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume V. Published 1909. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York, [3/3/2008]

Panofsky, Erwin. Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character. Vol. 1. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Ridderbos, Bernhard, Anne Van Buren, and Henk Van Veen. Eds. Early Netherlandish Paintings: Rediscovery, Reception, and Research. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005.

Schwartz, Gary: "Kingdom of the Netherlands" Grove Art Online. Oxford University

Press, [3/3/2008],

Snyder, James: “Bouts: Albrecht” Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, [3/3/2008],

Wisse, Jacob. "Burgundian Netherlands: Court Life". In Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2002)