Antwerp’s Mayer van den Bergh museum may be small; it contains quite a few treasures. It’s located just a short walk from either the Rubenshuis, the Moretus Plantin Museum, or the Rockoxhuis. It’s difficult to miss: the flags on its facade at Antwerp’s Lange Gasthuisstraat, can be spotted from quite a distance.
The old part of this museum is situated in a period home with several rooms on its various floors. Part of the collection is on show in a modern wing, which is connected to the period home by elevator, or corridors and stairs. As in the Rockoxhuis, Rubenshuis and Moretus Plantin, some walls are covered with worked leather, a few rooms contain immense fire places, light filters in through stained glass windows. Unlike the other three, this museum does not have a garden.
This quaint museum was built by Henriette Mayer van den Bergh, to commemorate her son Fritz. He was a collector of late medieval and early renaissance Flemish art. Despite dying in his early forties, he managed to put together a collection with pieces which can now vie with the Parisian Musée Jacquemart-André, London’s Wallace Collection, as well as New York’s Frick Collection.
While putting together this collection, Fritz Mayer van den Bergh regularly managed to outbid other museums. A late 13th century statue of Jesus and John, now on display in the modern wing, is one example. It was created by Master Heinrich von Konstanz for a nunnery in Sankt Katharinenthal in Switzerland. A conservator of a Berlin museum wrote Fritz Mayer van den Bergh “… should you find [it] too large …. please let us know. Maybe we can reach an agreement for our museum to buy it.” Obviously, Fritz thought the statue was just fine.
Another piece, also on display in the museum’s modern wing, is a so-called “Christmas cradle”. It dates from the middle of the fifteenth century. Through his network, Fritz Mayer van den Bergh received news a Parisian art collection was up for sale. Before the Louvre and similar museums could put in a bid, Fritz had bought the whole collection.
He lacked enough money, so funded his acquisition by selling off all but 165 of the 451 pieces. The cradle is one of the pieces he kept. Like the Christ-Johannes Andachtsbild, this cradle was made for a nunnery. During the Christmas period, it was probably used to sublimate the nuns’maternal feelings, as well as forming a kind of devotional, spiritual link between them, Maria, and Jesus.
Among the 165 Micheli pieces are also two panels of a small, portable altar. The four panels, two of which are now in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, may have been ordered by Burgundian Duke Charles the Bold. Devout people used these portable altars to be able to pray while travelling around. It seems the Burgundian Dukes owned several such alters.
The panel of Christ’s birth shows Joseph cutting up a stocking: the “Josefshosen” legend. Maria and Joseph were so poor, they had no swaddling clothes. So Joseph cut up his stockings. The “Josefshosen” relic was venerated at Aachen Cathedral around 1400.
The museum’s modern wing contains an impressive collection of alabaster and other carvings. Quite a few of the alabaster statues are as exquisite as those exhibited at the Musée du Moyen Age in Paris. Among my favourite pieces are not the “Andachtsbild”, Christmas cradle, or the “Josefshosen” image. I prefer the so-called “pleurants”, or mourner statues and pieces from little Princess Bonne’s grave.
Other favourites are in the period home. Once past the till, lockers, small museum shop and the entrance doors, walk along the corridor and you will notice two pillars. They date from the late 12th century and two women seem to step out of them. One may personify the prophetess Sarepta and the other possibly Temperantia or Dialectica. These statues were once part of a the church of Notre Dame en Vaux, in Châlons-en-Champagne. The old church no longer exists.
The rooms to the left of these pillars show more medieval art. The rooms to the right contain 16th and 17th century paintings, chests, cupboards, and more. The five portraits of the Vekemans family are impressive. Especially those of the children who look at you with their large, soul-full eyes. The whole family is complete bar one. There is a sixth but missing portrait of daughter and sister Cornelia or Elisabeth.
Among all the beautiful and precious pieces ranging from coins, cameos, manuscripts to cupboards, chests, statues and paintings, there is one which makes me regularly revisit the museum. It is of Brueghel’s “Dulle Griet”. This is not the museum’s only Brueghel, but certainly the weirdest and it’s unique.
It strongly reminds one of Hieronymus Bosch‘s paintings. Brueghel’s painting shows a mad woman walking through a hellish landscape with her loot. What it no longer shows is, that she stuck her tongue out. Her tongue has been painted out.
The exact meaning of the painting remains a mystery, but to me it represents the craziness of war. Dull Greta or Mad Meg wears a harness and helmet. She carries a sword, cutlery, money-box. She hurries through a world on fire, where people and monsters are destroying each other.
If you are unable to visit this museum regularly to look at “Dulle Griet”, take your time. Sit on the bench in front of it and observe all the horrors it contains. To you “Dulle Griet” is perhaps an allegory not of war, but of mankind’s foolishness. Regardless, the painting is impressive. After this horror, chaos, destruction and madness, you’ll be glad to escape to more serene art in the museum’s new wing, or its period rooms.