Next to the Dom and Rietveld Huis, the Catharijneconvent is Utrecht's premier attraction. The site has an adjacent Church worth a glance, but the former convent - now a museum - is why visitors come in droves.
And it's not for the architecture, but for the religious art assembled inside. Quite simply, it's hard to imagine a better display of Christian art anywhere.
There's too much to absorb in a single visit. If you only have a couple of hours, accept what I did: you have to focus. Is your main delight pre-12th century? Do you like the Renaissance? Or are you a diletant who wanders the aisle and stops when a piece strikes your fancy? The older the better is my usual starting point, but some triptychs just halted me in my tracks. And the succession of related pieces slowed me to a crawl as I took in the similarities and differences wrought by time.
The descriptions are only in Dutch. I've wavered in my approach to this. Part of me wanted more English, but Dutch really isn't impossible to understand with patience and some German in your quiver. The trouble is that there's too much art to linger over language. Fortunately, the museum provides a free English guidebook to the core works in its collection. Many objects that caught my eye weren't included, but enough were to make my visit memorable. And there simply wasn't time for more. The lesson was not to be greedy, to accept the limits imposed by fatigue, and recognize that this art takes a lifetime to assimilate. I was content with the guidebook.
You can trace the history of religion in the Netherlands if you want, dwell on the Catholic items, or study the changes that occurred when Luther's influence prevailed.
There are modern items in the collection; this isn't entirely old stuff.
Most importantly, you learn that not all crucifixes are the same, that artists made important choices about what they enfigured and how. You start to see religious images as sculpture, not just symbol.
I was mesmerized.
Getting there? It's a five minute walk south of the Dom. If you've walked more than five minutes, check your map again.
Special exhibitions? I saw the Russian Icons from Moscow. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Someone with a clever brain mounts these. If you read the booklet quickly before you enter, your enjoyment will skyrocket. I learned more in five minutes than across many years. And there's no extra charge for the special exhibits. No need to eat or drink at the attached cafe; but if you're tired, it offers a welcome respite to the feet.
The objects are displayed in clear light, though the rooms themselves are dim. I had no trouble navigating, however, and there's an elevator for those who wish or need it.
On the whole, it's tough to find fault with this museum. I wish I could read Dutch better, but that's the point of travel isn't it? To enlarge yourself?
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