Janne Colijns

Janne Colijns was the prioress of the Augustinian Order of Onze Lieve Vrouw ter Rosen gheplant in Jericho, Brussels. She performed this role from 26 June 1482 until her death on 30 April 1491. It is difficult to establish whether she herself commisioned her epitaph or her companions did so. It was probably hung near the prioress’ grave, especially as it is relatively small – 56 x 54 cm. Its composition is centered around the scene of crucifixion – on both sides of the cross Mary and John the Evangelist are placed, and at the foot of Jesus – Mary Magdalene. The group is located in an extensive landscape, on the left side one can see the silhouette of the city with a high tower of the church.

Master of the Saint Barbara Legend, Epitaph of Janne Colijns, after 1491, Gemäldegalerie Berlin

If we take a closer look, we notice that the foreground does not belong to the same space as the crucifixion scene, but is separated by a golden line that emerges from both sides of the shield, which is located in the middle of the lower edge of the composition. It separates two groups placed on a floor with a geometric pattern, shown on a golden background. On the left is the figure of a young girl in a red dress praying to Christ at the flagellation column. The Savior is standing in a hip band, his robe is already removed. On the right side there is a figure of a kneeling nun praying to the Man of Sorrows. There are bands hovering everywhere on which words of prayer are written, with which the figures speak. A young girl and a nun are representations of Janne Colijns in two stages of her life – as a novice still in her maiden dress, with her hair uncovered, and as a prioress in her monastic dress. This is a rare presentation of a double portrait of the deceased.

Further words can be found on the picture frame and written in two fields under the composition. They mix texts in Latin and in the local language – in Netherlandish. They give the identity of the deceased, her age and the place of burial. They also contain more personal messages – her desire for forgiveness and eternal life. Some of them form a dialogue with Christ. Such a large number of words is quite untypical, one can even say that this epitaph is quite an exaggeration.

It becomes even more interesting when we realize what Sister Colijns was occupied with. Together with other sisters she was a scribe and wrote down the sermons preached in her church. It was a very demanding job, concerning to write down not while listening, but afterwards. To compile and edit the text based solely on the notes of the preachers. In such work, the sisters often had to extract the meaning from the available fragments of the text on their own. This practice was part of the practices of the devotio moderna movement, i.e. modern devotion based on individual reflection on the Scriptures. At the time of Colijns, the Order in Brussels was officially incorporated into the community of Windesheim, a monastic group of devotio moderna. Words were very important in the practice of this form of piety and this is probably also why they accompany Colijns on her last journey. They help to preserve the memory of her and to obtain prayers for her salvation from the living. They are all the more important because Janne’s images are not realistic portraits, they are rather generic depictions of a young and an old woman. Her status and identity are determined only by her clothes and inscriptions.

The epitaph of Janne Colijns makes us aware today that paintings used to had much more practical functions that we attribute to them now. They preserved the memory of those who passed away, the events of their lives – weddings, births or deaths.

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