Disability and the Senses

The Besloten Hofjes of Mechelen

BH reform3Besloten hofjes (enclosed gardens) are composed of 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 (forthcoming, Summer 2017).


Besloten hofjes compel sensory devotion, and sight provides the privileged point of entry into the works. Paradoxically, a female devotee identified in this essay as visually impaired is represented in a portrait wing hinged to one example. Archival and visual evidence reveals that the hofje was commissioned by the woman’s parents, probably for the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwegasthuis (Hospital of Our Lady) in Mechelen, where their daughter was professed. There, the hofje asserted a meritorious status in piety that claimed salvation for all three members of the familial triad. It does so in part by invoking pious practices tied not to sight but to the other senses. Such assertions were crucial, for the daughter’s visual impairment rendered her and her parents spiritually suspect. This essay, therefore, redefines

mechelen malines musee hof van busleyden museum jardins clos

Besloten Hofje, Musea en Erfgoed Mechelen, inv. GH BH/2, Collectie Gastshuiszusters, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe Waver, Copyright KIK-IRPA, Brussels

sensory piety as socially persuasive, an approach that departs from most previous investigations on religion and the senses which focus primarily on devotional interiority. Furthermore, as the first study to integrate a Besloten hofje’s portrait wings interpretively with its garden, it opens a new investigative line 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 emphasis on reception rather than production.

“Monastic Utopianism in a Mechelen Besloten Hofje,” essay in progress.

Collaborative Projects on the Besloten Hofjes

“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, 2017.

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.