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Art is no fringe attached to the garment, and no amusement that is added to life, but a most serious power in our present existence.
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Wael, Jan die - VM - Bart Thijs

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.

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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 Visual Meditation September 29, 2019