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Exhibition explores the Christian tradition of devotional images from the fourteenth to eighteen centuries
Giovanni Savoldo, Pietà with Three Saints, 1529; oil on canvas; 43 5/8 × 60 3/8 in.; museum purchase.

BERKELEY, CA.- The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive presents Devotion. The exhibition, organized by BAM/PFA Assistant Curator Stephanie Cannizzo, explores the Christian tradition of devotional images, and asks the question: “Is it possible to cultivate virtue by looking at art?” Including works from the BAM/PFA collection by Rembrandt, Rubens, Caracciolo, Patinir, Dürer, and others, Devotion is presented as a meditation cycle depicting scenes from the earthly life of Christ, moving from the time he was an infant in his mother’s arms to his death on the cross and the subsequent pietà.

Beginning in the late Middle Ages, do-it-yourself prayer manuals inspired by mystical traditions enabled lay audiences to learn monastic meditation techniques. At the same time, with the advent of perspectival drawing, artworks took on a more realistic appearance, 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 from the fourteenth through eighteenth centuries are arranged as a sequential narrative to mirror segments of 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. Caulibus frequently uses metaphor in his text, which was intended to encourage empathic identification and provide readers with role models, and metaphor also plays a significant role in these artworks. For example, the emerging genre of landscape painting in Patinir’s Flight into Egypt serves here as a metaphor for the pilgrimage through life, where one experiences peaks and valleys as well as a choice of paths.

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 images 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.

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