The lower senses in early Netherlandish epiphany altarpieces
The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were a time of growing affective piety and engagement with the material culture of Christian devotion in Northern Europe. The three so-called lower senses of smell, touch, and taste were very much a part of this devotional context, formed over centuries to be associated with particular fragrances, embraces, and savors. This work argues that artists and patrons exploited a play on these lower senses as integral parts of the composition, utilizing objects, actions, and even persons to trigger sense memory, ideas, and appropriate practice in viewers. The Epiphany, or the biblical event when magi from the east brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn Jesus, was a popular subject for altarpiece paintings. It was one of three most popular altarpiece subjects in the late medieval Low Countries. Its association with the Eucharist and the phenomenon of infrequent communion for the laity at the time helps to explain why the lower senses became important in these works. Smell is highly associated with memory and was stimulated in these altarpieces to reinforce positive life events with the Church's worship. Touch and taste are braided senses that imply contact with Christ through the Eucharist, if only visually. Marginal persons also appear in these paintings becoming living symbols of the senses that help to correct over-enthusiasm for miraculous and direct contact with the holy.
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