Oud Holland

Review of: 'Images and indulgences' (2021)

August 2023


Review of: Miyako Sugiyama, Images and indulgences in early Netherlandish painting, Turnhout [Brepols] 2021 

Based on an award-winning dissertation, Miyako Sugiyama’s fine monograph – Images and indulgences in Early Netherlandish painting – explores the form, function and meaning of a well-considered selection of Netherlandish paintings known from the documentary record, to have been indulgenced. In the late medieval economy of salvation, certain prayers granted a pardon from temporal penalties owed for one’s confessed and absolved sins if the votary recited them while looking at specified holy images. Paintings commissioned with the express purpose of fulfilling this requirement – namely, to accompany such indulgenced prayers – are what primarily concern Sugiyama. Prayers of this type afforded the remission of punishment in purgatory for sins committed during one’s lifetime. Although absolution could be obtained through the sacrament of Penance, the debt of satisfaction might remain only partially paid at a person’s death, or the sins. Especially venial ones might be unacknowledged or even unknown to the perpetrator, in which cases purgatorial suffering was the necessary consequence. Driven by anxiety about the status of their polluted souls, votaries at every social level, both clerical and lay, sought out indemnifying indulgences, as their prayerbooks (the laity’s books of hours above all) testify.

The power of painted images to secure the beholders’ attention and intensify their affective response to the subjects depicted – such as episodes from the Passion, or the Sorrows of the Virgin – contributed to the value these images were thought to carry as instruments of indulgenced devotion. This is evident from the fact that the prayers in question, as prescribed in the rubrics that correlate to them in books of hours, require the supplicant not merely to recite the prayer but to read it with the utmost fervency. Typical is this rubric, taken from a sixteenth-century Franciscan prayerbook, where it attaches to a prayer closely related to the so-called Colnish Pater noster, to be recited while staring at a Crucifix:

“Anyone who reads the following prayer with devotion and inwardness to honour the passion of our Lord and to honour Our Dear Lady for 15 days in a row shall receive anything he prays for, as long as he is in a state of grace. One should begin like this: the person should sit himself in front of a crucifix with inner desires and pangs of the heart towards the mercy of God, and cast his eyes onto the eyes of the sculpture of Christ, then read the following psalm, the third one in the Psalter.”1

Cover of: Images and indulgences in early Netherlandish painting

fig. 1a. Simon Bening, Holy face of Christ, fol. 194v of the Da Costa Hours, ca. 1515, tempera colors, gold paint and gold leaf, 172 x 125 mm., The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, inv. MS M.399

fig. 1b. Simon Bening and scribe, Border with forest scene framing Oratio de sancta veronica, Salve sancta facies, fol. 195r of the Da costa hours, c. 1515, tempera colors, gold paint and gold leaf, 172 x 125 mm., The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, inv. MS M.399

fig. 2. Simon Marmion, Mass of St. Gregory, c. 1460-1465, oil and gold leaf on panel, 45.1 x 29.4 cm., Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, inv. 79/121

fig. 3. After Jan van Eyck, Holy Face of Christ, after 1438, oil on panel, 44 x 32 cm., Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

fig. 4. Jan van Eyck, Virgin and Child with St. Barbara, St. Elizabeth, and Jan Vos, early-1440s, oil on panel, 47.3 x 61.3 cm., Frick Collection, New York

The paintings studied by Sugiyama were expected by their fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century viewers to help them cultivate a state of meditative absorption and to facilitate the concomitant expression of ardent compassion. Like Kathryn Rudy, whose essential book Rubric, images and indulgences Sugiyama frequently cites, she focuses on image-types with an assured connection to well-known prayers, opening with three: the Holy Face, the Virgin and Child in sole (in the sun), and Mass of Saint Gregory (whose chief components are Christ the Man of Sorrows and the arma Christi). They respectively invite recitation of the indulgenced prayers: Salve sancta facies (Hail, holy face) and/or Ave facies praeclara, Ave sanctissima [virgo] Maria mater Dei, (Hail, glorious face, Hail, most holy [virgin] Mary, mother of god) and O domine Ihesu Christi, adoro te in crucem pendentem (Oh Lord Jesus Christ, I adore you, hanging on the cross) – the latter often called the Verses of Saint Gregory. Unlike manuscript miniatures, which were often accompanied by rubrics, the panel paintingsSugiyama discusses rarely include indulgence texts; she pays close attention to the few exceptions, such as the intriguing Triptych of the descent of the cross, after Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464) of (c. 1500) – which foregrounds the ostension of the corpus Christi, or Simon Marmion’s (1425-1489) Mass of Saint Gregory (c. 1460-1465), which incorporates the inscription:

“At the time that Saint Gregory was celebrating the Mass in Rome in the church called the Pantheon, Our Lord appeared to him in this likeness. From which, for the great compassion which he had in seeing him thus, he decreed to all those who for reverence of him would say devotedly on [their] knees five times the Pater nosterand the Ave Maria, fourteen thousand years of true pardons and other popes and bishops 1.200 years and 46 times 40 days of indulgences.”2 

Both examples reveal the degree to which liberties were taken by patrons and painters in their sourcing of prayer texts coupled with images: whereas the triptych quotes the Adoro te, it appends it neither to a Mass of Saint Gregory nor to the arma Christi, but rather to an icon of the Man of Sorrows, dead and embedded in a Deposition; conversely, Marmion portrays the Mass of Saint Gregory, but combines it with a quintuple call to recite the Our Father and Hail Mary, not the Adoro te.

Unlike the manuscripts discussed by Rudy – which often supply quite detailed rubrics giving the history of the indulgence and instructions for how to obtain it – the paintings expounded by Sugiyama come to us shorn of any guiding or regulatory apparatus. Given that they usually bear little or no trace of the rubrics with which they were once probably conjoined – in the form of an inscribed frame, say, or an engraved brass plaque or mounted parchment text hung nearby – they require to be set in an indulgenced context by recourse to collateral data and circumstantial evidence. Sugiyama brings to bear as much circumstantial detail as she can, always erring on the side of caution. For example, with respect to Jan van Eyck’s (1390-1441) two versions of the Holy face of Christ (1438 and 1440), the originals of which are lost although two pairs of copies survive (dating from the late fifteenth to the early seventeenth centuries), useful comparanda include: the Master of Jean Chevrot’s Portrait of Christ, in a Book of Hours (c. 1450), which pairs the Holy Face with the Salve sancta facies, and a Triptych with Christ as Salvator Mundi (c. 1500), painted in the manner of Van Eyck, with the same prayer inscribed on its inner wings. Sugiyama musters numerous pertinent comparanda of this kind in her efforts to draw reasonable inferences about the erstwhile coupling of paintings with indulgences: they would have been painted with a view to ensuring that the associated indulgenced prayers were properly performed. Occasionally, the inferences remain just that, and a painting’s ritual performative context stays tantalisingly out of reach. Robert Campin’s (c. 1375-1444) Virgin in glory, of c. 1420, for instance (of which four variants can be identified), all dating from the early sixteenth century, antedates the richly indulgenced Ave sanctissima [virgo] Maria attributed to Sixtus IV. Although the picture might have functioned as a mnemonic device for a wide range of Marian prayers (such as the Salve Regina, which invokes Virgin’s aid in times of great distress), its particular jointure to an indulgenced Marian prayer, pace Sugiyama, remains a matter of plausible if not pure conjecture.   The proliferation of indulgenced prayers in illuminated book of hoursproduced in the Low Countries, and the likelihood that the patrons who commissioned devotional panels and altarpieces prayed before them with such prayerbooks in hand, strongly suggests that many of these paintings may indeed have carried indulgences.  Disappointingly, Sugiyama proves unable to make a stronger case. 

Since the majority of early Netherlandish paintings have lost the frames where the rubric of an indulgence might once have appeared, or been removed from the church settings that licensed a picture’s connection to a specific indulgence, argument by inference presents itself as the only way forward.  In fact, Sugiyama may be overly circumspect: perhaps she should have dwelt more fully on the methodology of inference, and then followed up by embedding selected paintings in a more densely spun web of credible comparanda. Be that as it may, having hypothesised that certain images can plausibly be associated with identifiable indulgenced prayers, Sugiyama moves on to examine two other kinds of indulgenced image: the one distinguished by the protracted spiritual exercise it sets in motion for the procuring of a jubilee or plenary indulgence, the other by the image’s dependence on an institutional context for the efficacy of the indulgence it proffers.

On the model of the jubilee indulgences (which was granted by Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa to the convent of Saints Mary and Agnes at Diepenveen, in 1450, and by Sixtus IV to the city of Bruges, in April 1478), Sugiyama convincingly argues that paintings such as the three panels from a dispersed series of saints of c. 1500 – each of whom bodies forth her or his respective shrine – Saint John the Baptist before San Giovanni in Laterano, the Madonna and Child before Santa Maria Maggiore, and Christ Crucified before Santa Croce in Gerusalemme – depict stages in the Jerusalem pilgrimage – translating them into virtual loci visitable within a local place. For example, the city of Bruges and its seven churches, or a convent whose chapels and altars could be made to stand for these Roman sites. Comparanda include the Seven Roman Churches and their Patron Saints (in Margaret of York’s guide to the indulgences to be obtained in the pilgrimage churches of Rome), illuminated by the Workshop of the Master of Edward IV (c. 1470-90); or the Seven saints and churches, in Robert van Coelen’s Die dostelijke scat der gheestelijker rijcdoem of 1519). Along with the frontispiece rubric in Heer Bethlem’s guide of 1510, printed in Antwerp, Sugiyama argues/demonstrates that they indicate this was one of the likely functions of the painted series of c. 1500: “This is a devout meditation on the Passion of Our Lord, and from place to place, whose distances are given, where our beloved Lord suffered for us, with the images and beautiful prayers pertaining to them. And as often as one reads it devoutly, he will earn all the indulgences as fully as if he had visited bodily all the holy places in Jerusalem. And a devout priest who lived in Jerusalem for a long time measured and described those [places].”3 The same holds true, as Sugiyama points out, for the Passion of Christ in Jerusalem (c. 1470-90), in M Leuven; a panoramic vista comprising multiple episodic tableaux, wherein each scene is marked by a letter, the entire sequence extending from A-V.

Once again, a discernible drift in the performative application of indulgenced prayer can be discerned, although Sugiyama curiously refrains from commenting on this phenomenon. Unlike the virtual pilgrimages celebrated in Bruges and Diepenveen, the pilgrimages enabled by the paintings Sugiyama marshals, and codified by the visual-textual apparatuses she invokes for purposes of comparison generally operated beyond the boundaries of ecclesiastical regulation. They could be enacted on any day or days the virtual pilgrim chose, in any place s/he designated, since the place that ultimately subsumes Jerusalem and its principal loca sancta is the votary’s own heart, construed as a bodily and spiritual locus. Two species of Jerusalem pilgrimage, the public and the private (or semi-private), mirror each other. The latter implicitly claims the legitimacy and institutional sanction of the former, even while diverging from it due to the conditions and circumstances particular to private devotion. This trend grew as the fifteenth century progressed, as Rudy notes in her discussion of the proliferation of hybrid forms of indulgenced imagery – such as the Holy Name in sole – and allied developments: the steady accretion in the Adoro te and other prayers, the inflationary doubling of indulgences (and temporal penalties), and the abrupt rise in popularity of the Mass of Saint Gregory and its displacement of the Annunciation as the scene with which patrons most wished to be portrayed.4 Between the late fourteenth and the early sixteenth centuries, there were marked changes in the kinds and degrees of indulgence issued by the Church to secure release from purgatory, and conversely, in people’s sense of the types of indulgence, they needed to assure themselves of salvation. Most obviously, the numerical scale of years of remission offered (and expected) increased exponentially. In spite of her book’s many merits, Sugiyama furnishes little sense of how dynamic and variable the indulgence marketplace became as the fifteenth century progressed.

Sugiyama devotes three full chapters, the second half of Images and indulgences, to paintings and allied indulgences that can firmly be associated with known institutional patrons. This is the most cogently argued part of her book, bolstered by the availability of rich archival sources, such as the letter of indulgence and the Necrologium excerpt, specifying when and how Jan van Eyck’s Virgin and child with St. Barbara, St. Elizabeth, and Jan Vos (also called the Madonna of Jan Vos) became indulgenced – and how the indulgence was to be activated. The relevant documents, published by art historian Hendrik Scholtens in 1938 in Oud Holland, have mainly been celebrated for the crucial role they played in identifying the picture’s patron, the Carthusian prior Jan Vos.5 Sugiyama instead places emphasis on the ways in which Van Eyck’s painting, through its status as an indulgenced image, not only affirmed the sanctity of Vos – whose elevation to the office of prior in 1441 it was likely commissioned to memorialise – but also conferred sacred authority on the two priories he headed: first Genadedal (1441-50) and then Nieuwlicht (1450-58). The first document, written in the voice of Martin Bishop of Mayo, states that he consecrated the picture (along with a diptych of the Resurrection and Maria lactans, and a clay effigy of the Virgin and child) for ‘Master Jan Vos, Prior’ (‘domino Johanni Voes, priori’), i.e, for his use, but then goes on to extend that use to the whole community his monastery encompasses:
“We, therefore, wishing the said depictions to be duly venerated separately by all [who are] truly penitent, confessed, and contrite, who before the first picture salute the Mother of Mercy, Queen of Heaven, Mother of God, with the angelic salutation, or honor Barbara or Elizabeth with the Our Father and the angelic salutation and devoutly implore their help…remit, by the authority bestowed on me…forty days of indulgence from penance already imposed, or to be imposed in the future, by the mercy of God’. Bishop Martin now adds, crucially, that the indulgence may be vouchsafed by the votary to ‘another person, as a special grace…for persons alive or dead, as long as the said pictures do not pass outside the Order.”6

Extrapolating from the materials Sugiyama skillfully marshals, one might expand upon her conclusions, as follows. Viewed in terms of Bishop Martin’s compact, the Madonna of Jan Vos can be said to depict him praying in the manner necessary to secure the indulgence granted in his favour and expanded at his request to subsume the community in his charge. That the indulgence is transferable further implies Vos is praying on the viewers’ behalf, interceding for them, just as Barbara, with the assistance of Elizabeth of Hungary, intercedes for him before Mary – who then mediates his access to Christ. This indulgenced picture, in other words, elides any distinction between the personal and institutional registers, folding both into a specifically Carthusian prayer regime bound to the personal sanctity of Vos and the pre-eminent sanctity of the order he represents.

Sugiyama quite rightly asks who belonged to the larger communities of Genadedal and Nieuwlicht. On the basis of the Necrologium, which mentions that Vos’s picture was brought by him to Nieuwlicht after he assumed the priorship there, and that it was displayed on the altar of ‘Blessed Barbara Virgin and Martyr, on top of the choir screen in our church’, she is able to demonstrate that it once stood on an altar visible to congregants gathered in the nave of the monastic church, from where it may also have been accessible via a stairway. (A second altar, dedicated to the Archangel Michael and All Angels, stood beside it.) She credibly proposes that the Madonna of Jan Vos was perhaps displayed in a similar way at Genadedal: if not on the choir screen, then in one of its alcove chapels facing the laity. Whatever its location at Genadedal, the fact that the monks of Nieuwlicht used it to grace an altar where the liturgy of the Mass was celebrated for the benefit of the laity – at the threshold between the nave, where the public gathered, and the monks’ choir, the holiest of monastic spaces – demonstrates how interwoven the institutional mechanisms were; by which, through the mediation of the Carthusians, the affordances of grace – liturgical and devotional, sacramental and pietistic, public and private – were seen to radiate outward from the cloister to its environs.7

The somewhat indeterminate or, better, mixed character of the Madonna of Jan Vos enhances these social and ritual entanglements: given its format (a single panel not a triptych) and its relatively small size (47.3 x 61.3 cm.), the painting seems almost to belie the office of altarpiece, even though it is known definitely to have stood on the Saint Barbara altar at Nieuwlicht; concurrently, the picture insists on its standing as placeholder for an indulgence. Contingent on the altar, it yet retains its independence of it. In its two-way function of linking altar and indulgence, the Madonna of Jan Vos, as deployed by him, recalls the Carthusian origins of the Mass of Saint Gregory: by claiming that the Man of sorrows icon displayed in their church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme was a true image of the Eucharistic vision witnessed by Gregory, the Carthusians succeeded in annexing this altarpiece-icon to the rich indulgences attendant on images of the arma Christi.8 The iconography of the Mass of Saint Gregory, especially those versions postdating c. 1460 – when the Verses of Saint Gregory came indelibly to be associated with it – makes explicit the linkage between altar and indulgenced image that earlier underlay the Carthusian rewriting of the Santa Croce icon. One might venture to state that Jan Vos, in his manipulation of an indulgenced image for the good of his priory, showed himself to be no less adept at shoring up his community than his Roman brothers had been several decades earlier. 

Images and indulgences closes with a discussion, more descriptive than fully interpretative, of six other images closely tied to institutional indulgences: the lost cult statue of the Virgin of Hulsterloo, for which a remarkable copy of the original letter of indulgence survives (1474), embellished with pen-and-ink drawings of the holy image and its forest setting that appear coterminous with the letterforms, as if to say that the image and its indulgence were somehow mutually constitutive; Pieter Pourbus’s Triptych of the holy sacrament confraternity (1599), painted for the brotherhood’s ambulatory chapel in Saint Saviour’s Cathedral, in Bruges, whose outer wings depict the patrons performing the indulgenced prayers recited at the elevation of the corpus Christi, as prescribed in the parchment Record of two indulgences at Saint Saviour’s (1517), probably illuminated by Cornelia van Wulfschercke; the three indulgenced Marian icons commissioned by Jan van Coudenberghe for display in the churches of Saint Giles, Abbenbroek, Saints Peter and Paul, Reimerswaal, and Saint Saviour’s, Bruges, to propagate the newly founded Confraternity of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin;9 and Jan Joest van Kalkar’s Triptych of the seven sorrows of the Virgin (c. 1505), which was commissioned by Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, Bishop of Palencia, for the retro-choir of the Cathedral of Saint Antolín, to encourage indulgenced devotion to the Seven Sorrows of Mary. Sugiyama is owed a debt of thanks for giving thought to these indulgenced institutional works, as a group. Beautifully produced, with numerous detailed color plates, closely coordinated with the textual argument, the book is well worth reading. She carefully examines those few paintings known to have functioned together with an indulgence, and she rightly insists on the relevance of this relation for understanding a picture’s meaning.  She also offers useful circumstantial evidence that many other paintings may have been considered desirable precisely because of their connection to an indulgence. Less satisfactory is the absence of any discussion of changes in the indulgence economy between 1400 and 1520: the inflationary rise in the number of years forgiven, the steady loss of institutional control over the circulation of indulgenced images, the growing anxiety about the conditions under which the efficacy of indulgences could be guaranteed. 

Walter S. Melion
Emory University


1 K. M. Rudy, Rubrics, Images, and indulgences in late medieval Netherlandish manuscripts, Leiden 2016, p. 95.

2 M. Sugiyama, Images and indulgences in early Netherlandish painting, Turnhout 2021, p. 50.

3 Sugiyama 2021 (note 2), p. 70

4 Rudy 2016 (note 1), pp. 130-33, 206-213.

5 H. J. J, Scholtens, 'Jan van Eycks “H. Maagd met den kartuizer” en de Exeter Madonna te Berlijn’, Oud Holland 55 (1938), pp. 49-62.

6 M. Sugiyama 2021, p. 97.

7 Indeed, Sugiyama adverts to the Masses offered for two patrons of Nieuwlicht, Theodricus Thome de Parijs and his wife, Athalisia, at the altar of Saint Barbara.

8 C. Bertelli, 'The "image of pity" in Sancta Croce in Gerusalemme', in Douglas Fraser (ed.), Essays in the history of art presented to Rudolf Wittkower, London 1967, pp. 40-55; Rudy 2016, pp. 101-107.

9 The Marian icons of Abbenbroek and Reimerswaal survive in the form of woodcuts in Gheraert Leeu’s incunabulum, Ghedenckenisse van de vij. weeden oft droefheyden onser liver vrouwen, Antwerp 1492.


Walter Melion, 'Review of: Images and indulgences in early Netherlandish painting', Oud Holland Reviews, August 2023.