Even before viewers begin to decipher the word diptych, they likely will be overwhelmed by the sufferings of the Christ figures in Albrecht Bouts’ “Ecce Homo (Behold the Man),” paired with a “Mater Dolorosa (Sorrowful Mother),” and “Man of Sorrows,” juxtaposed with another “Mater Dolorosa.”
Droplets of blood pour from Jesus’ thorned “crown” into his bloodshot eyes in the “Ecce Homo.” By contrast, his bloody hands are the focal point in “Man of Sorrows.”
Diptychs by Bouts and other 15th- and 16th-century Northern Renaissance masters, such as Jan van Eyck, Hugo van der Goes, Hans Memling and Rogier van der Weyden, show the inherently emotive tensions in this art form, on display at the National Gallery of Art’s “Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlanderish Diptych.” Perhaps the first kinetic art, diptychs usually are two flat wooden panels attached with hinges so they can be folded, closed, hung on a wall or set at angles on tables.
Images were painted on both sides — usually a Virgin and Child on one panel and a donor portrait on the other. They are protected when folded and shown only when the ensemble is open.
Emotional tension is the hallmark of Netherlandish diptychs and what attracted the show’s organizers — the National Gallery in Washington and the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp — in association with the Harvard University Art Museums — to create the first exhibit devoted to them.
For example, what could be more moving than the tension displayed in Robert Campin’s “Trinity With Virgin and Child”? In an unusual juxtaposition in the left panel, God the Father, wearing a papal headdress, holds the broken, lifeless body of Christ, and the dove of the Holy Spirit hovers nearby.
In the right panel, Mary tests the warmth of a fireplace while readying the Christ Child for a bath with a ewer, white towel and basin on her lap, contrasting Christ’s babyhood with his later death and Resurrection.
Diptychs served the Devotio Moderna — the new, more intimate religious movement of the time, which encouraged worship at home as well as in church. The popularity of diptychs also coincided with the rise of the wealthy duchy of Burgundy, a once vast area that included parts of present-day Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg as well as Burgundy and other provinces in northern France.
Also suited to these smaller formats were the relatively new oil pigments that allowed for shimmering multilayerings, or glazings, as in Rogier van der Weyden’s “Virgin and Child With Jean de Gros” — surely one of the exhibit’s best.
Here, the positing of the holy figures at left with the donor’s portrait at right is most effective. The Virgin and Child exude softness and light. Tenderly, the mother directs the nipple of her right breast to the smiling infant. Her elongated hands and fashionable Burgundian court dress bespeak her noble station and elevated holy rank.
On the right, although he is in prayerful posture, Jean de Gros is stiff and almost cartoonishly painted. He was the rich and powerful chief financial officer in the administration of Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, and he’s painted as such.
We also see that curators can play Sherlock Holmes, as the fitting together of Rogier van der Weyden’s exquisitely painted “Saint George and the Dragon” (National Gallery of Art, Washington) and his “Virgin and Child” (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) reveals.
Exhibit curator John Oliver Hand knew they belonged together but hadn’t figured out how. Recent infrared reflectography revealed the same crack running through both wooden panels and thereby connected the two. Originally the fronts and backs of one panel, they were later sliced in half.
Though this is a creme-de-la-creme exhibition, the inclusion of often ugly 16th-century diptychs, such as Bernard de Rijckere’s double portrait, are real downers. Compared to the other religious or more humane images, these are stiff and distant.
Mr. Hand should have left them out.
WHAT: “Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych”info cq below
WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays; through Feb. 4