He who has most sympathy with his subject will obtain the best results. Henry Ossawa Tanner


Wael, Jan die - VM - Bart Thijs

ArtWay Visual Meditation September 29, 2019

Jan die Wael: Three Ladders

Climbing Up to Perfection

by Bart Thijs

These three ladders give a glimpse into the spirituality of the devotio moderna or Modern Devotion of the 14th – 16th centuries in the Netherlands and surrounding countries. The Modern Devotion was a call then for a recovery of genuine spiritual practices such as simplicity, humility and obedience. Words are written on the rungs of the ladders, as for instance on the left ladder ‘goede zeeden’ (good morals), ‘goede wil’ (good will) and one on the ladder at the right ‘hemelse plannen’ (heavenly plans), ‘hartelijke devotie’ (passionate devotion). On the top rung of the blue ladder it says ‘ganse ghelove’ (full faith), at the top of the green one ‘vast hoope’ (sure hope) and of the red ladder ‘caritaet’ (charity) – taken together faith, hope and love. The ladders should serve as an aid – as the caption underneath states – to the spiritual ascent to perfection. The ladders illustrate the pious and edifying advice that abbot, Jan die Wael, wrote down in his Informieringhe (Informations) for a group of devout sisters whom he served as father confessor.

Life is like a ladder, which one can climb to attain higher perfection: a very old image that is known in many cultures and religions. Italian masters frequently portrayed the ladder, not only in scenes of the descent from the cross, but remarkably enough also in depictions of the ascent of the cross – as according to legend Christ would have climbed the rungs of the ladder very deliberately, one by one, higher and higher. In this way these artists made clear that Christ’s suffering was not his fate, but his very own choice.

That the image of the ladder was well-known in the circles of the devotio moderna becomes clear from writings like the Geestelijke opklimmingen (Spiritual Ascent) by Gerbolt van Zutphen or the Meditatieladder (Meditation Ladder) by Johannes Mombaer. But these are written documents rather than drawn or painted images. The motif is hardly illustrated, which means that the ladder by Jan die Wael is a rarity. From the resplendent paintings of the Italian masters the ladder has now become a simple instruction model for catechism. Apart from the simplicity this also underlines the strongly methodical nature of this devotion. Climbing up is done rung by rung, step by step, day by day, on the rhythm of the hours, in a disciplined life of poverty, humility, chastity and care for one’s neighbour. That is how one becomes more like Christ and thus also more human.

The discipline of the devotio moderna was unique in the generally spiritually overheated state of the late Middle Ages. It lent its piety a down to earth character and guarded it from exaggerated sentimentality or ecstatic fanaticism. In this regard the devotio moderna would have a lasting influence: while it shared an optimistic view of humanity with the humanism of Erasmus and an emphasis on a personal faith with the Reformation of Luther and Calvin, the Counterreformation would build on its discipline, as becomes clear in the ‘Spiritual Exercises’ of the Jesuit Ignatius of Loyola.


Jan die Wael: Drie ladders, 15th century. Drawing in Informieringhe by Jan die Wael, Stadsbibliotheek Haarlem, Haarlem, NL.

Jan die Wael was abbot in Amersfoort in the Netherlands and father confessor of the Agnes Convent in Amersfoort, NL.

Bart Thijs is a Dutch retired Reformed minister, who lives in Deventer, with a special interest in the relationship between faith and art.    



ARTWAY – In our blog section we posted a Dal Schindell Tribute by Ken McAllister. “While Dal’s ads and sense of humour became the stuff of legends, it was his influence on the arts at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada that may be his biggest legacy.” Read more

DÜRER IN VIENNA, AUSTRIA - 20 September – 6 January 2020, The Albertina Museum, Albertinaplatz 1, Vienna: Albrecht Dürer. Spectacular Presentation of a Renaissance Genius. It has been decades since so many works by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) have been seen in one place: thanks to valuable international loans, Vienna’s ALBERTINA Museum—itself home to numerous world-famous icons of drawing by Dürer including the Hare, Praying Hands, and Large Piece of Turf – will be presenting over 200 examples of Dürer’s drawings, printed graphics, and paintings in autumn 2019. Upon its reopening in 2003, it was with an exhibition of works by Albrecht Dürer that the ALBERTINA Museum ended up welcoming a total of half a million visitors. And now, a selection of over 100 drawings, a dozen paintings, personal writings, and other rare documents will present the oeuvre of this Renaissance genius more comprehensively than ever before. Hours: more about Dürer, click here

REMBRANDT IN WARSAW, POLAND - 5 October – 3 November, Zamek Królewski w Warszawie, pl. Zamkowy 4, Warsaw: 36 x Rembrandt. The Royal Castle in Warsaw joins the celebrations of the Rembrandt’s Year by opening the exhibition, which features 36 original works by Rembrandt. The most important of them are two paintings from the Castle’s collection: Girl in a Picture Frame (1641) and Scholar at his Writing Table (1641). At the side of originals we present their copies from 18th and 19th centuries. Among them are miniature paintings and graphic works. The public will have a chance to see how the copies reflect the history of the originals and trace the differences. The last part of the exhibition comprises 31 graphic works and 3 drawings by Rembrandt, which belong to the Print Room of the Warsaw University Library, The Scientific Library of the PAAS and the PAS in Cracow and Museum of the Lubomirski Princes (The National Ossoliński Institute) in Wrocław. Tu – Su, 10 – 18 h (Fr until 20 h).

WENCESLAUS HOLLAR IN PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - 4 October – 5 January 2020, National Gallery in Prague – Collection of Prints and Drawings. Kinsky Palace,  Staroměstské náměstí 12,  Prague: Wenceslaus Hollar and the Art of Drawing. Wenceslaus Hollar (1607 Prague – 1677 London) has mainly been presented at exhibitions and in books as a graphic artist, but less as a draughtsman. The National Gallery Prague published a monograph in 2017 with a comprehensive list of his drawings, which often represent an apex of the contemporary art of drawing in Europe. This exhibition will be the first to focus almost exclusively on his drawings, their artistic quality and significance enhanced by the comparison of Hollar’s artworks with those by his predecessors, contemporaries and followers, such as Joris Hoefnagel, Matthäus Merian the Elder, Rembrandt van Rijn, Lambert Doomer or Francis Placeand others. On display will also be several prints and paintings by the artists, who had a relationship to Hollar’s work. The National Gallery wants to show Hollar’s drawing roots and other inspiration, but also his unique quality and significance in the context of 17th-century European art. The exhibition will present a number of first-quality artworks loaned from major European collections, such as the British Museum in London, Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin, the Albertina in Vienna and many other museums and private collections. Hours:

REMBRANDT IN LONDON, ENGLAND - 4 October – 2 February 2020, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, Dulwich Village, London: Rembrandt’s Light. 2019 is The Year of Rembrandt with celebrations taking place throughout Europe to mark 350 years since the artist’s death (1669). Dulwich Picture Gallery will stage London’s Rembrandt moment with an innovative exhibition that aims to refresh the way that we look at works by this incomparable Dutch Master. Along with many firsts, this show will bring the captivating painting Philemon and Baucis (National Gallery of Art, Washington) to the UK for the first time. Rembrandt’s Light will bring together 35 carefully selected international loans that focus on Rembrandt’s mastery of light and visual storytelling, concentrating on his greatest years from 1639-1658, when he lived in his ideal house at Breestraat in the heart of Amsterdam (today the Museum Het Rembrandthuis). Its striking, light-infused studio was the site for the creation of Rembrandt’s most exceptional paintings, prints and drawings including The Denial of St Peter and The Artist’s Studio. Hours:

PIETER BRUEGEL THE ELDER IN ANTWERP, BELGIUM -5 October – 31 December, Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Musea Antwerpen, Lange Gasthuisstraat 19, Antwerp: Madonna Meets Mad Meg. Pieter Bruegel the Elder is the focus of an international celebration in 2019. Antwerp is where Bruegel learned his trade and where he worked for over ten years. He remained a presence in the city even after his death, thanks to his sons, Pieter the Younger and Jan. And when Bruegel’s name had faded from memory, it was the Antwerp collector Fritz Mayer van den Bergh who rekindled interest in his work. Fritz rediscovered the painting Dulle Griet (‘Mad Meg’) and it was thanks to his enthusiasm that Bruegel has now been studied and coveted for over 100 years. Focusing on the acquisitions of collectors Florent van Ertborn (1784–1840) and Fritz Mayer van den Bergh (1858–1901), the exhibition combines Bruegel’s recently restored Mad Meg with one of the highlights of the currently closed Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp: Jean Fouqet’s Madonna. Hours:

JAN BRUEGEL THE ELDER IN ANTWERP, BELGIUM - 5 October – 26 January 2020, Museum Snijders&Rockoxhuis, Keizerstraat 10-12, Antwerp: Jan Brueghel the Elder: A Magnificent Draughtsman. In 2019, Flanders and Brussels are looking back the crucial role that Pieter Bruegel the Elder played in the art-historical landscape of the sixteenth century. The 450th anniversary of his death is a great opportunity to rediscover the artist’s work and that of his son Jan Brueghel the Elder. The Snyders&Rockox House is taking a closer look at the drawings of Jan Brueghel I (1568–1625), son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and brother of Pieter the Younger. Together with Peter Paul Rubens, Jan was one of the most successful Flemish artists of the first quarter of the seventeenth century. He was at home in every market – an inspired painter of landscapes, seascapes, still lifes, historical themes, hunting scenes and allegorical and mythological subjects. Jan is seen as the inventor of the floral still, but he was also an important innovator in the depiction of landscapes, in which his father’s artistic legacy and his visit to Italy played no small part. Hours:

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