Disability and the Senses

The Besloten Hofjes of Mechelen

Besloten hofjes (enclosed gardens) comprise upright cabinets populated with holy sculptures, and brimming with hand-wrought flowers and fruit arranged in verdant gardens. Rarely acknowledged are portrait wings attached to some examples such that they form triptychs. This project is the first to integrate the portraits interpretively with the gardens to explore the social interventions of the hofjes. It takes as its focus a group of exceptionally complex works from the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwegasthuis (Hospital of Our Lady) in Mechelen, to explore relationships between sensory piety and physical disability, monastic reform, and uncharted tensions around the gendered practice of enclosure.


“Sensory Piety as Social Intervention in a Mechelen Besloten Hofje,” JHNA – Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 9/2 (Summer 2017): 1-50, DOI: 10.5092/jhna.2017.9.2.1.


Besloten hofjes compel sensory devotion, and sight provides the privileged point of entry into the works. Paradoxically, a female devotee from Mechelen, identified here as visually impaired, is represented in a wing hinged to one example. By prioritizing physical disability over spiritual interiority in the study of the hofje, this essay recalibrates sensory piety as socially persuasive. The investigation in turn complicates previous models for the production and reception of Besloten hofjes in general.

Previously untapped archival and visual evidence reveals that the hofje was likely commissioned by the impaired woman’s parents, probably for the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwegasthuis (Hospital of Our Lady) in Mechelen, where she was professed. There, the hofje asserted a meritorious status in piety that claimed salvation for members of the familial triad, all three of whom were rendered spiritually suspect by the woman’s disability. It does so in part by invoking pious practices tied not to sight but to the other senses, despite the visual pull of the work. Furthermore, integrating the hofje’s portrait wings interpretively with a garden, as this essay is the first to do, opens a new means of analysis that reshapes proposed models of production for such works. Among its conclusions: the sisters did not produce this and other hofjes associated with the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwegasthuis as previously proposed. Rather, the works were likely made in professional workshops in Mechelen that perhaps collaborated with nuns at contemplative convents in the city. This revised understanding of production realigns the hospital sisters’ agency with reception rather than production.

mechelen malines musee hof van busleyden museum jardins clos

Mechelen, Besloten Hofje with Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, Saint Ursula, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, 1513–24 (?),  Musea & Erfgoed Mechelen, inv. BH/2, Collectie Gasthuiszusters, Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Waver, © KIK-IRPA, Brussels, http://www.kikirpa.be

“The Painted Wings of the Mechelen Besloten Hofjes: New Findings and their Consequences,” in Mechelen Enclosed Gardens, ed. Lieve Watteeuw. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters Publishers, in press for 2018.

“Monastic Utopianism in a Mechelen Besloten Hofje,” in Imaging Utopia: New Perspectives on Northern Renaissance Art, ed. Lieve Watteeuw. Leuven: Peeters Publishers, in press for 2018.

Collaborative Projects and Activities

CODARTfocus Mechelen, May 2018. Scholars and museum professionals gathered at the Hof van Busleyden for a besloten hofjes study day.

“Monastic Utopianism in a Mechelen Besloten Hofje,” presentation for an international conference, ‘Imagining Utopia: New Perspectives in Northern Renaissance Art,’ organized by Illuminaire: Center for the Study of Medieval Art, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 2017.

Three restored hofjes are included in the exhibition In Search of Utopia 1516: A Story in Four Acts. Sponsored by M–Museum Leuven and Illuminaire: Center for the Study of Medieval Art, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 2016-17.

Video on the restoration of the hofjes:

English: In search of Utopia | The restoration of the Mechelen Closed Gardens

Dutch: Op zoek naar Utopia | De restauratie van de Mechelse Besloten Hofjes

French: A la recherche d’Utopia | La restauration des Jardins Clos de Malines

Additional Presentations

“Sensory Piety as Social Intervention in a Mechelen Besloten Hofje,” University of Delaware and University of Arkansas, 2018.

With Art History Graduate Students at the University of Delaware

“The Besloten Hofjes of Mechelen and the Social Dynamics of Devotional Art,” National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 2014.

“The Tensions of Enclosure or, How the Besloten Hofjes of Mechelen Interrupted Resistance,” Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, 2013.

“’The “Untamed Thoughts’ of Netherlandish Women?: Besloten Hofjes as Deliberate Discourse,” presentation at “Early Modern Women: New Perspectives,” a conference organized by the Center for the Humanities at University of Miami, 2013.