A short history of hateful images in Turnhout exhibition


De andere verbeeld at the Begijnhof church in Turnhout looks at the history of art as hate propaganda in the Low Countries

Prejudice on show

Here is an exhibition you are not meant to enjoy. De andere verbeeld/Verbeeld gevaar (The Other Imagined/Imagined Danger) sets out to explore the way the “other” was depicted in Low Countries religious art between 1450 and 1750. In other words, three centuries of propaganda and prejudice directed at Jews, Africans, Turks and other groups despised by the Christians of the time.

The period chosen also covers the Reformation and Counter Reformation, when Catholics and Protestants waged doctrinal war against one another, and the exhibition includes images produced in that conflict as well.

The result is an uncomfortable suggestion that all these groups are equal, that Christians have been victimised just as much as Jews and Africans. In this sense, the exhibition is not just about propaganda; it is propaganda.

The educational part of the exhibition has toured Flanders for the past year and makes its final stop at the Begijnhof church in Turnhout, Antwerp province. It consists of a series of advertising panels, the sort usually built into bus shelters where they scroll through different posters. Here each panel is devoted to a particular target group – Jews, Blacks, Turks, Heretics and Catholics – with reproductions of three paintings that attack them in some way.

This method of presentation emphasises that this is art with an ideology to sell, although the visual quality of the reproductions suffers. Even so, it is possible to see that some of this propaganda reached high aesthetic standards.

Physical damage

Take “Synagoga” by the Master of the Legend of Saint Ursula, a beautiful, if derogatory, personification of the Jewish religion, painted for a convent in Bruges.

The most striking image, however, recounts a scene from the Miracle of the Holy Sacrament, an anti-Semitic tale of Jews who stole consecrated bread, only to find it bled when they cut into it. The painting, by Jakob van Helmont, has been slashed, revealing the wooden supports beneath. This brings home the physical violence that so often accompanied the prejudice on show, although how the painting came to be damaged is not explained.

The second part of the exhibition is particular to Turnhout. In the Begijnhof Museum, alongside the church, a number of artworks and artefacts that fit the theme have been selected from its collection.

The finest is perhaps a painting of Christ being mocked by Jews and Turks on his way to the cross, by Frans Francken the Younger. There is also an attractive polychrome statue of St Catherine of Alexandria, treading the Roman Emperor Maxentius underfoot. The only barb against the home team is a set of playing cards satirising the Pope.

Perhaps the oddest point in the exhibition again involves the Miracle of the Holy Sacrament, with variations of the tale taken from a 1770 book and a 1905 children’s paper. These are displayed in a room which otherwise documents how the begijnen used to bake sacramental bread. Quite what message we are meant to draw from this unnerving juxtaposition is not clear.

Until 5 April at Begijnhof Church and Museum, Begijnhof 56, Turnhout