- The Meditative Art: Studies in the Northern Devotional Print 1550-1625
Walter Melion, professor of art history at Emory University, investigates how and why devotional prints and printseries produced in the Low Countries (mostly in Antwerp) in the period 1570 (not 1550 as the title suggests) up to 1620 were seen and used, as the book jacket notes, "as instruments of Christian meditation and contemplation." After an introductory chapter, which makes a cogent case for choosing to concentrate on the given period and geographical boundaries, Melion analyzes nine different cases in depth, using examples ranging from well-known and often discussed illustrated books such as Jeronimo Nadal's Adnotationes et meditationes in Evangelia (1595) to series that have escaped attention by scholars such as Septem Psalmi Davidici, produced and published by the Wierix family in [End Page 796] 1608. In most chapters the focus is on what is generally, though not without problems, defined as reproductive printmaking, whether it be series of prints or single sheets that are in most cases part of a larger publication. In two chapters Melion, however, also shows how individual works of art in other media stand in the same tradition of meditation and contemplation such as Hendrick Goltzius's 1608 drawing of The Adoration of the Magi (chapter 7) and Otto van Veen's painting The Carrying of the Cross (c. 1610, chapter 8). In contrast to the first sentences of his introduction, where Melion presents the outline of his study, this broadening of the scope, in fact, only reinforces his argument and demonstrates the strength of the tradition of using devotional images as a source of meditation. Although Melion occasionally refers to images in other media in his case studies, a more systematic inclusion of such examples would have enhanced this rich and rewarding study.
The strength, wealth, and importance of Melion's study—as in most of his other publications—lie in his extraordinary understanding of religious (printed) Catholic and Counter-Reformation imagery in the Netherlands as well as related theological and ethical literature. His analysis of the images selected is convincing and proves that in Antwerp—with the Jesuits as a determining actor—an entirely innovative range of printed images was created. The Meditative Art certainly stimulates us to re-examine the Antwerp production of devotional images with fresh eyes and is without a doubt a major and lasting contribution to the study of religious imagery in this period.
There are, however, some drawbacks. More attention to the importance of artistic means (style, composition, artistic rivalry, and so forth) to reach specific visual results would have been welcome. Addressing the intended audience for the particular work and its relationship with that work are crucial in this context. In this sense, the magnificent Goltzius drawing, created for an unknown purpose and patron; the rather boring Van Veen painting made for a church; and Wierix's print series of David's psalms are all entirely different. Unfortunately, too little attention is paid to such major differences in use and intended audience. In addition, Melion largely ignores the variety of, and differences in, artistic and intellectual networks that surround the creation of the individual works of art. A quintessential study such as Evelyne Verheggen's Beelden voor Passie en Hartstocht: bid- en devotieprenten in de Noordelijke Nederlanden (Zutphen/Nijmegen, 2006)—missing from the bibliography—shows how and in which context devotional prints were effectively used and provides a welcome counterpoint to the more theoretical and theological approach by Melion.
These comments, however, do not in any way diminish appreciation for Melion's study. It stands as a major contribution to our understanding of religious imagery in one of the important crossroads in art history. [End Page 797]