Enclosed Garden with Saints Elisabeth, Ursula and Catharina
To mark the 25th anniversary of CODART, each month we introduce you to one of the hundred exceptional masterpieces of early modern Dutch and Flemish art (1350-1750) selected by museum curators from around the world for the CODART Canon. This time, all eyes are on the Enclosed Garden with Saints Elisabeth, Ursula and Catharina at Museum Hof van Busleyden in Mechelen.
Anonymous, Enclosed Garden with Saints Elisabeth, Ursula and Catharina, ca. 1513, mixed media, including wood, oil paint, textile and wax, 188.5 x 134 cm, Museum Hof van Busleyden, Mechelen © Museum Hof van Busleyden, Mechelen
The besloten hofjes, or enclosed gardens, are probably the most enigmatic retables ever produced in the Low Countries. One of the best preserved is the enclosed garden with Saints Elizabeth, Ursula and Catherina. Made for (and probably by) the Augustinian nuns of Mechelen, it is a testimony of devotion.
Detail of the enclosed garden © Museum Hof van Busleyden, Mechelen
The iconography is quite complex, and perfectly suited to the hospice nuns. Three female saints stand in a hortus conclusus, the Latin term for an enclosed garden. The various references to one of the most mystical texts in the Bible, the Song of Songs, the stories of martyrs, and references to piety and purity fit perfectly with the spiritual world of the Augustinian nuns. A hybrid and overwhelming spectacle of images, relics, textiles, flowers and other objects enhances the religious experience.
Details of the enclosed garden © Museum Hof van Busleyden, Mechelen
This is a work of art in which viewers lose themselves, a devotional image that encourages the viewer to look beyond the material and embark on a spiritual journey.
Peter Carpreau, Director of the Old Masters Department, M Leuven, Leuven