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A window on Dutch devotional art

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During the turmoil of the 16th century, as the Low Countries struggled in a confessional war that ultimately divided their land into separate Catholic and Protestant states, many talented Dutch painters traveled to Italy to absorb the achievements of the Italian Renaissance and to blend those with their own national flair for descriptive realism.


There is no better way to get close to the work of these artists than through their drawings.

The exhibit “Bosch to Bloemaert” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington shows how these Netherlandish artists worked in many modes.

They sketched landscapes in their native Low Countries and as far south as the Straits of Messina, with the Alps in between, often peopling them with characters from Scripture.

They developed a series of designs on moral themes, literary classics and Gospel stories that would be made into prints for mass circulation.

And they prepared important paintings, such as altarpieces and devotional works, through compositional drawings and studies of details. These included paintings for the hidden Catholic churches that spread in the northern Netherlands under the ruling Calvinists, who practiced religious toleration to a degree unprecedented in European history, but did not allow public worship by faiths other than the Dutch Reformed.

Many of the drawings on display will resonate especially with Catholic visitors.

A precious Crucifixion

A recently rediscovered drawing of the Crucifixion dates from the 15th century, while Christendom was still unified. This detailed study in the unusual medium of goldpoint and silverpoint, pen and black ink on gray prepared paper tantalizingly is close to a painting by Jan Van Eyck, the Bruges (now Belgium) artist who dominated his century and died in 1442. Scholars debate whether the drawing might be by Van Eyck himself or from his workshop, but it rewards a long look using the little magnifiers that the gallery is loaning visitors.

Nearby is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s panoramic drawing of Charity from 1559, part of the series of the Seven Virtues designed to be engraved. A female personification of Charity stands at the center of the scene, crowned by a pelican (a traditional symbol of Christ’s self-sacrifice) and holding a burning heart that stands for the love of God. Crowded around her are represented the Seven Acts of Mercy (Mt 25:31-46) — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, tending the sick, lodging the traveler, burying the dead, visiting the prisoner and refreshing the thirsty. In the margin below, a Latin inscription reads in part: “Expect what happens to others to happen to you.”

Reminding us of the 2016 Year of Mercy, this theme was popular in the Netherlands with Catholics, because the church defended the idea that individual good works had value in the plan of human salvation, in contrast to the Reformed Church tenet of “justification by faith alone.”

Finally, the exhibit introduces to Washington museumgoers for the first time Abraham Bloemaert, an outstanding pioneer artist of the Dutch Golden Age. His importance may be gauged by the fact that his name is in the title of the show alongside the better-known Hieronymus Bosch.

Bloemaert was born in 1566 just before the outbreak of the Eighty Years War between Spain and the rebelling Northern Provinces of the Netherlands. He lived in Utrecht, the seat of the Catholic archbishop before the Calvinist takeover. He died in 1651, three years after the Dutch Republic finally won its independence. More than 100 students were trained in his studio, including possibly the great Johannes Vermeer. He left behind some 3,000 superb drawings, including landscapes that set the stage for the flourishing of naturalism in Dutch landscape in the 17th century.

According to early biographers, Bloemaert was a fierce Catholic who had a private chapel, debated religion openly in the town, and wrote secret letters to the Jesuits. He provided the first major altarpieces for the hidden Catholic churches.

One such altarpiece is a “Lamentation of Christ.” In the exhibit are two chalk figure sketches for the body of Christ that reveal the artist studying different positions for the feet, and the presentation model prepared for the patron of the final picture, in chalk, pen and ink, and wash, squared for transfer (a grid of lines to guide the artist in the larger-scale final painting).

The painting has survived and is in the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, the same museum that loaned the drawings in the present exhibition.

On view through Jan. 7, “Bosch to Bloemaert” offers a serene complement to “Vermeer and the Masters of Dutch Genre Painting” that opened on the gallery’s main floor Oct. 22 (and is expected to be mobbed), and the National Gallery’s permanent collection of Dutch art, the finest in the world outside Holland.

Hamerman is a freelance writer from Reston.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017