Friday, May 22, 2020

A Dutch Renaissance Rood-Screen

One of the highlights of last summer’s pilgrimage to England with the Schola Sainte Cécile for me was a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum, which among its many collections has a wonderful and very large section dedicated to Medieval and Renaissance art and liturgical objects. One of the most notable items is this rood-screen, which was originally installed in the cathedral of St John in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands.
This city, whose name means “the Duke’s Forest”, was part of the diocese of Liège from its founding in 1184 until 1559, when it was made an independent see, partly to counter the rising tide of Protestantism; a collegiate church dedicated to St John the Evangelist was then chosen as the cathedral. In 1566, however, the Netherlands were hit with the Beeldenstorm (“image storm”), a ferocious wave of Calvinist iconoclasm that led to the destruction of countless religious images throughout the region. The newly elevated cathedral of St John was attacked, and the rood screen badly damaged. Starting in 1600, and continuing until 1613, an artist named Conrad van Norenberch and his workshop installed a new screen of Belgian black marble, decorated with several alabaster statues.
Unfortunately, only 16 years later, ’s-Hertogenbosch was taken by Protestant forces; Catholic worship was officially suppressed, and the church turned over to a congregation of the reformed faith, but despite its iconographic program, which is thoroughly in line with the Counter-Reformation, the screen was left mostly undamaged. (Some of the figures in the smaller relief panels were decapitated.) The region remained predominantly Catholic, with the people attending secret churches, until the post-Napoleonic period, when the Calvinist religion was disestablished, and Catholic services openly permitted once again; the church was restored to Catholic worship in 1816. By 1860, the building, long neglected by the Protestants, was badly in need of a restoration, which was done in the neo-Gothic style. At this point, the screen, which blocked the view of the sanctuary, and clashed with the style of the restoration, was sold to an English art dealer named Murray Marks, who in turn sold it to the V&A in 1871.
The statuary program is as follows.
1. Upper left: a female figure bearing a shield, on which were formerly visible the arms of Brabant, the region which includes ’s-Hertogenbosch. (The shields are now blank, but their program is known from the surviving contract between the church and the artist.)
2. Lower left: St Peter
3. Above the arch: Faith, with reliefs of the Wedding at Cana and the Feeding of the Five Thousand to either side.
4. Upper right: a female figure bearing a shield, on which were formerly visible the arms of Godfrey III, Duke of Brabant.
5. The Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child.
6. Inside the lower part of the screen, Justice.
7. Over the central arch: Charity, with reliefs of the Transfiguration and the Betrayal of Christ to either side of her.
8. Upper left: a female figure bearing a shield, on which were formerly visible the arms of Albert of Austria (1559-1621) and Isabella of Spain (1566–1633), the Habsburg rulers of the Spanish Netherlands at the time the screen was built.
9. Lower left: St John the Evangelist, the Patron Saint of the church. According to the website of the V&A, this was done in part by a well-known artist from Amsterdam named Hendrik de Keyser, who was himself a Protestant, and under the patronage of his native city. However, the Protestant religious authorities ordered him to stop working on it, and it was finished in van Norenberch’s workshop.
10. Above the arch: Hope, with the Ecce Homo scene and the Crucifixion to either side.
11. Upper right: a wild-man bearing a shield, on which were formerly visible the arms of ’s-Hertogenbosch.
12. St Paul
13. Inside the lower part of the screen, Peace.
A view of the screen from a distance...
...and from behind.

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