Is it possible to cultivate virtue by looking at art? Devotion brings together works from the collection to explore the Western tradition of devotional images from the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries in relation to contemporary religious writings. Beginning in the late Middle Ages, do-it-yourself prayer manuals inspired by mystical traditions were written in the vernacular to enable lay audiences to learn monastic meditation techniques; at the same time, with the advent of perspectival drawing, artworks became more naturalistic, enhancing the relationship between the viewer and the image. Together, these texts and images had a profound impact on devotional practices.
The artworks in Devotion represent a range of artistic approaches to sacred images. Painting, sculpture, drawing, tapestry, and prints by Rubens, Rembrandt, Dürer, Patinir, Caracciolo, and others depicting scenes from the life of Christ are arranged in the gallery as a chronological narrative, moving from the time he was an infant in his mother’s arms to his death on the cross and the subsequent pietà. This mirrors the fourteenth-century text Meditations on the Life of Christ by John of Caulibus, thought to be the first devotional text to present a chronological account of Christ’s life on earth, which was intended to encourage empathic identification and provide the reader with role models.
While some considered employing art as a vehicle to reach a transcendent state a lower form of meditation, others allowed it as a valid point of departure. Ultimately the aim was to rise above the need for pictures in the quest for a divine connection, but for the novice practitioner art helped to activate compassion and cultivate virtue through a process of inner visualization and empathy.
Devotion is organized by Assistant Curator Stephanie Cannizzo. Special thanks to Curatorial Intern Jessina Leonard and The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.