Scripture for the Eyes: The Dutch Text Painting

The 2006 Reading of the Sacred Texts, delivered on February 8
by Mia Mochizuki
Assistant Professor, Thomas E. Bertelsen, Jr. Chair of Art History and Religion
Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and Graduate Theological Union

Photos from the event

It is a great honor to be invited to deliver the 14th Reading of the Sacred Texts Lecture and I’m delighted to be here. Tonight I hope to give you a new perspective on a sacred text at the core of much of western culture. We tend to think of one Bible and yet the historical reality is a multitude of productions – of different words, typefaces, title pages, illustrations and bindings – and surely these differences have their impact: whether the text is printed in the more common English textura on the left or the eccentric English bastarda, whether a title page tells where the Bible was printed or vouches for the orthodoxy of the translation with a cardinal’s hat, whether the Book was bound in ornate silver or excerpted, framed and hung on a wall.

In the opening decades of the sixteenth-century Netherlands, “sola scriptura,” the Erasmian call for a return to the Bible, may have seemed like the unofficial motto of reformation. Yet while much has been made of this ideal’s importance for theology, less attention has been directed towards its effect on art. When its impact on art has been treated at all, it is usually to remark on its role as the death knell for devotional art and the stimulus for a new iconography for religious painting outside the church.

But the formal effects of this ideal have been less studied, even though we know this was a time when words invaded pictorial space – as in Cranach’s Law and the Gospel – and biblical text utilized visual rhetoric. Clearly the relationship of word to image was in transition. But how did this affect paintings within the church interior? For this we can look to a Last Supper painting on the choir enclosure of St. Steven’s Church in Nijmegen. Or we can consider a colorful panel of biblical excerpts donated by the Carpenter’s Guild to St. Peter’s Church in Leiden. These objects are perhaps best called text paintings, a direct translation of the Dutch “tekstschilderijen.” Often anonymous, these monumental paintings of the Word were painted on panels, columns and walls in churches throughout the northern Netherlands during the first century after reformation. Structurally they belong to the history of painting, since they use the same materials of paint on panel or stone with frame, but visually their use of text recalls more a page of the Bible writ large.

This evening I will focus on six text paintings created for the redecoration of the choir of the St. Bavo or Great Church in Haarlem, The Netherlands, between 1580 and 1585. The centerpiece of this program was unquestionably the Last Supper panel, which occupied the space of the former high altarpiece and whose reverse featured a poetic memorial to those lost in the Siege of Haarlem by the Spanish. Like altarpieces these objects were complex undertakings requiring the collaboration of many specialists. For example, a poet, preacher or teacher would compose or select the text; a calligrapher, often a schoolmaster, or artist would paint it, adding varying degrees of ornamentation; and a cabinetmaker would furnish the often elaborate architectonic frame. Content included biblical excerpts arranged around a common theme, local real and mythic historical events or even the posthumous testimonies of a donor. The choir screen of the Great Church in Haarlem was then framed by excerpts from Matthew and John and lastly the eastern pair of tower-bearing columns prepared the viewer for what was to come with the guild-donated Linen Weavers’ and Greengrocers’ Paintings. Even in a small program completed within a mere five years, the paintings could look quite different, each designed to suit their location in the choir. What they all shared was a fundamental reliance on text as a full, independent and even rhetorical image in its own right.

Elsewhere I have discussed the position of these unusual paintings in terms of their status as art objects. Today I would like to consider how this newfound reliance upon Scripture impacted the visual imagination. By putting a Bible on the wall – not entirely unlike the effect achieved now through powerpoint – these text paintings ask us to reconsider the ways words and images work together to shape our sense of the sacred. For it is only when we consider their split personality as both word and image that we gain a sense of how truly radical they were. Therefore I will consider Dutch text paintings first as an image and then look at them as a text in order to fully understand the effects of this foray into divine representation that located both its cause and effect in the religious imagination.

We begin with what may seem an obvious question, but one without a clear answer. How do we see the Bible? After all we know from Doubting Thomas that “seeing is believing,” so this was a critical issue that strikes at the heart of faith. But how was content given visual form? Here we can look to the history of art. Images drawn from the Bible have a long history in church painting. We have only to think of the tormented pathos of Rubens’ Road to Calvary, an oil sketch known to many here from the Berkeley Art Museum, to recognize the ability of painting to imbue a biblical story with an immediate and pressing relevance. In fact, many images could serve, because, as you know, church paintings before reformation were frequently derived from biblical subject matter. Either a well-known story would be represented, such as the stations of the cross. Or the familiar figures that populate the Bible would reappear in an imaginary configuration, as in the canonical Ghent Altarpiece’s “Adoration of the Lamb.” Like these earlier figural paintings, the Last Supper took its subject matter from the Bible or more specifically here from the books of Corinthians, Matthew and Luke. But now the visual vocabulary used to tell the story had changed from a figural mode to text. Somewhere between the Ghent Altarpiece in St. Bavo’s Cathedral and the Last Supper in the Haarlem St. Bavo, the Bible became not only a conceptual inspiration, but a formal model for church paintings in the new Dutch Reformed church.

This use of text did not happen all at once. Text appeared in devotional art early on as a stimulation to prayer, providing a model for the viewer’s intended behavior. In the left wing of the Master of Saint-Jean-de-Luze’s Portrait of Hugues de Rabutin prayers materialized in three crisp, golden lines of Gothic script spiraling from Rabutin’s hands as he worshiped a statue of the Virgin and Child, the very same prayers the private devotional image was intended to invoke. Similarly the words on the diminutive Adoration of the Magi Triptych by a Southern Netherlandish master were also meant to be spoken by the worshiper. In the Catholic pre-reformation era the pictorial presentation of text was closely tied to intensifying devotional practice through imitation, much as figural realism had developed, and for this reason the texts chosen were largely human prayers. Often in Latin, these inscriptions were quite different from what is found in the Dutch text painting.

More closely tied to the text painting’s use of text is the unprepossessing Lentulus Diptych, ca. 1480, now in the Catharijneconvent, Utrecht. Here, the verbal and visual portraits of Christ were placed in direct pictorial counterpoint to one another. Physiognomic description of Christ could be accessed by either image or ekphrastic text, a paragone in competing poetic and pictorial modes of description. By awarding equal pictorial space and status to word and image the Lentulus Diptych complicated the myth of divine creation, or acheiropoeitic origin, revealing a lack of confidence in the ability of mimetic representation to communicate by its own merits alone. First mentioned by Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), the epistola Lentuli, or “Lentulus letter,” was named after the Roman Consul Lentulus, a contemporary of Jesus, and the letter was believed to have been authentic at least into the sixteenth century. Its ancient origins provided the verbal description of Christ’s appearance with much of the authority or truth value of a figural acheiropoeitoi and supplied a new generation of artists with a viable alternative source for Christ’s appearance. The “Lentulus letter” in effect challenged the supremacy of St. Veronica’s sudarium, the western church’s most famous relic. In the Lentulus Diptych this meant that not only were mimetic representation and verbal description of Christ positioned opposite each other, but also the divine and human origins of imagery, as pictorial space became an increasingly confusing mixture of earthly and divine materials.

The Lentulus Diptych also locates the problem increasingly as one that coalesced around the issue of divine representation. And here the uneasy balance of word and image in the battle for pictorial territory could not last. In the Netherlands the tetragrammaton, the Hebrew word for God, first appeared as a pictorial subject in the graphic work of a Mennonite pamphlet from 1529, a woodcut called the Witness of Christ. Text was used here to illustrate what had previously been represented by a naturalistic figure. This fit with Erasmus’ emphasis on the writings, or “litterae,” as the best “picture” of God. According to Erasmus, it was the intellectual capacity of man, his ability to reason, the “logos,” that resembled the divine, not his body.

Confirming this print’s suggestion of substitution is a renovation to Lucas van Leyden’s Last Judgment Triptych. Circa 1535, still over three decades before outright iconoclasm in the Netherlands, the canonical wooly-bearded image of God as an enthroned elderly man was removed and replaced with the simple tetragrammaton. This exchange of figure for word was made after less than a decade of use, making it more likely a renovation of choice rather than one of need. Gradually Erasmian advocacy for the adoption of words and texts as an acceptably abstract way of representing the divine at one remove began to have an effect and an indexical form of picture-making took root.

Picturing words presented a clever practical solution to Calvin’s objection to the “counterfeytsel,” or portrait, of God. According to Calvin the thing forbidden was “likeness [to God], whether sculpted or otherwise.” What began as a single, isolated word adrift in a sea of representational imagery soon blossomed into full-blown paragraphs of selected biblical citations. A truly textual kind of image emerged. Early on the Huguenot “Temple” at Charenton was known to feature walls packed with biblical verses and vaulting covered with the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, the same triumvirate of “belief, commandment and prayer” (“geloof, gebod en gebed”) that would later become established fixtures in Dutch Reformed churches. On the eve of Netherlandish iconoclasm Veluanus went so far as to advocate just such decoration when he recommended the painting of edifying proverbs from the Bible in large letters on the walls of churches, an effect not unlike the Ten Commandments painted on the wall of the transept of the Great Church in Edam. By 1581 the Rotterdam Synod made it official: the walls of God’s House should best be decorated with his thoughts and this became the new church reformation art. For the Reformed, seeing the Bible was best accomplished by a literal vision of text. In changing the definition of what constituted an image, the words of the Bible became an Erasmian “picture.” The Dutch text painting had essentially won its pictorial status as a result of theological dispute, while at the same time proclaiming its position as a “non-image” that would not lead worshipers astray.

With the Bible on the wall and the advent of text as an independent picture, we are inescapably returned to the realm of words. If we can look to the history of painting to understand how the Bible worked as a picture, the history of the book can help us understand how text paintings functioned as a text. Despite sharing neither common materials – oil on panel or stone as opposed to ink on paper – nor a common process of production – painting over printing, the Dutch text painting resembles nothing so much as a page of the Bible. Looking closer, we find that with the large scale presentation of text, spatial composition became even more critical. If we look at a title page of a Delft New Testament from ca. 1524 we see that the words are grouped into paragraphs, each distinguished by an extra space between them. But the Last Supper panel was more complex in its use of spatial subdivisions. The main field has at least four distinct text “zones” – margin citations, main body, centered heading and subgrouping of the last three lines – all suggesting the bodies of text were carefully arranged. These were images that followed Erasmian dictates that space be divided “from line to line” and “letter to letter,” in a highly conscious arrangement of words to improve legibility. Not only was it a return to Scripture, but to Bibles with the more legible printing of the sixteenth century.

Incipits, or introductory letters, , such as the “Ick,” or “I” of the Last Supper, drew upon the book tradition of making initial letters larger. But even this custom was quite different from the medieval illuminated manuscript so closely identified with monastic production. In text paintings, lines of text remained unbounded in direct contrast to the closed, even hermetic associations of letters in illuminated manuscripts, like the famous Chi-Rho monogram in the Book of Kells. Here monks used an intricate and self-referential design of three letters twisted into visual riddles and magical knots to spell out the name of Christ. During the early medieval era the legibility of text still mattered relatively little, because priests generally performed written texts using mnemonic keys.

Moreover in text paintings, noteworthy incipits occurred more frequently than in table Bibles. They could be used not just to mark the start of a passage, but also to dramatize each line, as in the larger yellow, green and red first letters of the Siege of Haarlem. Or initial letters could emphasize words of christological value. For example, in the Last Supper panel words encapsulating the central components of the event were capitalized with ornate calligraphic letters. These were words like “Bread,” “Blood,” “Body of Christ” and “Last Supper” [ “Broot,” “Bloede,” “Lichaems Christi,” “Avontmael”]. Letter ornamentation and placement allowed a textual subject to be surmised at a glance, as in the placing of the word “Avontmael,” or “Last Supper,” just to the left of center.

Almost as significant as the text for the text painting was the frame. And this too drew upon the visual presentation of the Bible. All text paintings had a distinctive border or frame – whether an implied painted border or an actual wooden molding – and in the transition from book to painting, the frame took on unprecedented importance. Always part of the original conception, the frame ensured the status of the text painting as both an independent object and as a part of the architecture of the church. Typically during the sixteenth century the title page of a Bible presented its opening text within an ornate architectural frame. Here I show you the title page of the first Bible officially approved by the States General in 1637, but the point is the same: the text was centered inside an architectonic structure, complete with columns and a pediment broken to reveal a diminutive Bible within the Bible. This structure recalls nothing so much as the presentation and framing of the Last Supper. The external frames of text paintings tended to use an architectural vocabulary with cornices, columns, lintels, arches and pediments, so that the frames in a sense constructed whole “buildings,” ornamental artifacts as “aedificia,” that anchored the ethereal text to earth. They literally built a “house for the Word,” or a small Reformed temple in the case of the Last Supper structure. And the implication remained of an echo of the Word repeating inwardly, a text that positively reaffirmed itself as it was further absorbed.

The sense of institutional authority from these architectural links brought text paintings yet closer to the world of books, but now in a more aggregate way. Frames emphasized a text painting’s function as a library in the sense of a “bibliotheca,” or case of books. Like the first “public” library in the Netherlands, the Biblioteca Thysiana in Leiden, each text painting housed a small compendium of knowledge of the divine. It was a seductive utopian vision, like Chartier’s “libraries without walls,” truly beautiful in its ideal and in its appeal to the mind’s eye over sight alone. As a “library” external architectural frames linked the texts not only through the space of the church interior, but also across jumps in time. The frames established storehouses for knowledge and the preservation of memory. The lessons learned from iconoclasm and political revolt in the Last Supper/Siege of Haarlem structure could now be mined by future generations. What makes text paintings so compelling is the way they not only unlocked radical transformations in the realm of reformation art, but also in the acquisition, organization and proliferation of knowledge and patterns of cognition in the early modern world.

By objectifying the Word through paint and frame, text paintings asked to be apprehended by their audience in a new way, discouraging only looking and asking also to be read, the role of spectator now complicated by that of reader. That text paintings were meant to be read may be deduced from the choice of Dutch language, rather than the less broadly accessible biblical languages of Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Their often large scale, central placement, explicit citations and the clear calligraphic hand in which they were written all point to the desire for a legible text. Reading, in turn, assumed a general literacy, a radical new standard for a society of this time. For by the end of the sixteenth century it was believed that most people could read the paintings. Text paintings could never have gained such prevalence without this society’s unusually high literacy, a rate unrivaled in contemporary Europe. Testimonies like that of Guicciardini’s popular “Description of all the Netherlands” (Beschryvinghe van alle de Nederlanden, Antwerp, 1581) characterized the situation in 1567 in this way: “The common people have generally been taught the rudiments of grammar, and most, yes even the peasants and country folk, can at least read and write.” These large-scale displays were oriented to a broad public and permitted many different kinds of reading. There was silent reading, murmured individual reading, shared reading in a small group and collective reading when the minister would lead the entire congregation, as is suggested by this view of a modest village church service.

Text paintings could be read during a service or at any time for personal reflection. At this time churches were always open and since appropriated churches, like the Great Church in Haarlem, were often located on the central town square, the church buildings continued to play a vital role in the everyday life of all citizens. Due to the position of the early Reformed church as one minority among others, particularly in North and South Holland, appropriated main churches of cities were also often a center for the whole community regardless of religious affiliation. Believers could then reflect on the tenets of Dutch Reformed theology or local history in the company of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Mennonite, Remonstrant and Jewish residents who passed through the building in the course of the day. The audience was now a broad public of all ages, classes, genders and religions bound by a common interest in local society and the religious traditions of the Book. If the history of art provides the rationale for the new verbal painting, the history of the book tells us a good deal about the aspirations of this genre’s creators for a new kind of worship. If seeing the Bible afresh required a textual image, reading the Bible on the wall placed new emphasis on isolating the “seeing” phase of reading with its dramatic appropriation of the visual tools of books and their libraries. The Dutch text painting not only blended word and image, it also remixed reading and picturing to new effect.

Imagining the sacred
When the double identity of text paintings came into play they were at their most effective in stimulating different parts of the imagination. Visual qualities of text engaged the pictorial imagination by appealing to the eye with the conventional attractions of bold colors and finely painted still life to invite the viewer to reflect further, but this time on the more safely ambiguous nature of text. We have only to look at the spinning wheel and spindle in the Linen Weavers’ Painting or the garlands and frame weighed down by abundant harvests in the Greengrocers’ Painting and the Matthew panel. These attributes link text paintings to contemporary themes in Netherlandish painting, the visual imagination outside the Church. If the genre, still life and landscape painting of the Dutch Golden Age is considered part of the “art of describing,” so too must the very verbal material culture of the early Dutch Reformed church.

Likewise the curling, woven calligraphic lines that often filled open spaces – the top of an arch, the end of a last line – evoked nothing so much as the contemporary calligraphy manuals of the day, like the Stichtigh A.B.C. of Niklaas Boddink van Laer, now in the Stadsbibliotheek, Haarlem. In these delightful images calligraphers competed to create pictures and frames with curls inflating and whirling into figures, vignettes and ships from as few strokes as possible. Further evidence of calligraphy as an expression of flights of fancy comes from a drawing of an Angels’ Mass by Albrecht Dürer. In it a broad panel is placed in the foreground, directly in line with the high altar, where angels record and document human activity. The inscription that heads the panel reads, “Here write whatever you want,” in other words, a license to create freely, and the surface is dotted with flowing calligraphic lines, lines that are not quite words. The love of the poetics of line found in the church interior was where human fantasy and imagination enriched the fabrication of a new post-iconoclasm “non-image” and invited the viewer to fill in the blank in his mind.

The visual power of both painting and printed book could also be harnessed to new rhetorical effect, endowing a text previously used mainly for silent reading with the recreation of an oral event. In an era when the visual presentation of text was still relatively new, incipits in text paintings also provided an independent form of punctuation with ornate letters replacing the paralinguistic signs of speaking, like intonation, gesture and facial expression. Thus words could be capitalized and letters colored to create a form of rhetoric that used visual signs to communicate oral qualities. In the Matthew panel the repetition of capital letters paralleled rhythm and stress in speech. Nine times the ornate majuscule “S” of “Salich,” or “Blessed” from the beatitudes – and four times the “W’s” of “Wee,” or “Woe” – cascaded down the center, translating much of the beatitudes’ rhetorical force, its pauses and effects, into visible form. The attention paid to the first letters of important words was also a result of the reconceptualization of the image as “announcement” in the literal meaning of the gospel as the happy message, the proclaiming of the Word. The bottom text of the Last Supper panel reinforces this oral dimension in a passage from Luke 22: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink from this cup, you announce [italics mine] the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Rhetoric, simulated announcement and rhetorician-style writing became ways the latent orality of the visual presentation of text could be achieved. The key substitution then was not just word for image, but “living word” in place of “dumb idol.” Text painting thus used an indexical relationship to man through language to provide an absent “voice” and ultimately direct the viewer’s attention back to the pulpit, the new center of the Reformed church. Like light bouncing off mirrors, the Word reflected from panel to panel until it reached the pulpit, where the preacher delivered his exegesis on the Bible beneath placards from the first book of Peter that read, “The Word of the Lord endureth forever” [1 Peter 1:25: “Goods woort blyft inder ewichheyt”].

Images like the Regnaud panel spoke to both the visual and auditory imagination with words that read, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and preserve it.” And Ten Commandments paintings, like that found on the wall of the Great Church in Edam, consistently claim, “God spoke all these words,” sketching a labyrinthine route of radiating echoes back to God’s mind. The Dutch text painting was an appeal to the mind’s eye, a meditation on the Bible that allowed the viewer to focus on the importance of absence in provoking the visual imagination. The Dutch Reformed answer in this sense shares a commonality of purpose with other early modern attempts to turn the fertile leap or disconnect in understanding the sacred to their advantage. In fact this strategy was not entirely unlike the Jesuit spiritual exercises or the Benedictine “lectio divina.” After reform, reading and hearing, the traditional cognitive provinces of the book, assumed increased roles, charting alternate roads to the visual imagination.

We started with one word, to some the Word – the Bible – and the problem of the canonical: the tension between tradition and innovation at the heart of creative endeavor. By looking at a single word, we have a sense of how a subject’s material absence can call to mind many forms. As prolific testimony to this abundance, I can refer you to an impressive attempt at the universities of Amsterdam and Leuven to catalogue Dutch and Flemish Bibles of all times and I encourage you to visit the Biblia Sacra website to see the rich trove of Bibles now available for further study. Projects like this are valuable because, like the text paintings, they allow us to begin to understand how the different presentations of the Bible, the material artifacts of religion, shape the construction of belief and the architecture of worship.

What then can the Dutch Reformed reinterpretation of a sacred text tell us? Erasmus’ call for sola scriptura complicated not only theology, but also picture-making in the Netherlands. By using a modified kind of formal analysis to focus on the relationship between word and image, text paintings can provide insight into a brief, but remarkable period of cultural history that was both about the erasure of art from within and the positivist production of new artifacts. Reformation was less a flat-out rejection of art than a reassessment of its relationship to verbal systems. We are not surprised then by this artist’s literal alignment of visual entry to a sermon in Amsterdam through the book. And if the balance of word to image was shuffled, objects were created like this Ten Commandments from the Great Church in Harlingen, where absence could ignite the imagination. In its sixteenth-century form Scripture gave new inspiration to the design of church paintings and recast the Church in the role of a living Bible. By drawing on the visual tools of both book and painting, iconic images were replaced with do-it-yourself picturing for a broad public, clearing the way for the imagination to do its work and create a bridge between the tangible and the ineffable.

And this is what the Dutch text painting communicates so well: that how we think about the sacred is very much a combination of the visual and the verbal. These objects suggest the importance of using images as primary sources and applying the skills of visual analysis – even for text. The appearance of text at this time was not incidental, supplementary or a by-product of its meaning. Images and the tools they relied upon were vital and dynamic agents in the articulation and formation of belief. In some ways Dutch text paintings only serve to remind us of the distinctions we draw, whether falsely or not, between our conception of seeing and our understanding of reading – between the way we look at a Saenredam painting of a church interior and the way we confront the text painting at the heart of the very same image.