Melun Diptych by Jean Fouquet
The Melun Diptych (1450-55)
Painting: Melun Diptych (LH Panel:
Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels; RH Panel: Etienne Chevalier
with St Stephen)
For the meaning of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.
This two-panel devotional painting, painted about 1450-55, was commissioned by Etienne Chevalier, treasurer to King Charles VII, for whom Jean Fouquet had already produced a Book of Hours (1450, Musee Conde, Chantilly). The latter was decorated with miniatures of Trajan's Column, the Old St Peter's Basilica, and other monuments which Fouquet had encountered during a visit to Rome, and with which Chevalier himself - as a diplomat and former French Ambassador to England - would have been familiar. It seems likely that Fouquet was already regarded as the outstanding painter at the French Court in Tours. Earlier he had done the Portrait of Charles VII of France (1445-50) - another masterpiece of early French painting albeit a none too flattering work revealing the King's bulbous nose and pop-eyes - and during his trip to Rome he was invited to paint the portrait of Pope Eugenius IV. In addition to the King and Chevalier, Fouquet also received commissions from the city of Tours, as well as other royal officials, such as the chancellor Guillaume Jouvenel des Ursins.
More Analysis of Melun Diptych
This diptych, now seen as one of the greatest Renaissance paintings of 15th century France, consists of two parts: a right-hand panel - Etienne Chevalier with St Stephen - now in the Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin; and a left-hand panel - Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels - now in the Antwerp Museum of Fine Arts.
Etienne Chevalier with St Stephen
This oil painting depicts the donor kneeling alongside his patron saint, Stephen. The saint, dressed in a deacon's robe, is holding a book, upon which sits a jagged stone, as a symbol of his martyrdom, while blood drips from his death wound on the top of his head. He has a Gallic physiognomy and a surreal haughtiness. A non-intrusive, Italian-Renaissance-style background, seemingly that of a church wall, shows pilasters alternating with inlaid marble panels. A mural inscription "Estienne Chevalier" is clearly visible. Both men are facing the right-hand panel, containing the Virgin.
Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels
The Madonna sits on a throne borne up by angels. One of her breasts is exposed, while in her lap sits the baby Jesus, one of whose forefingers points in the direction of Chevalier as if to suggest that his prayer for divine clemency will be answered. The identity of the Madonna is supposedly that of Agnes Sorel, the exceptionally beautiful and influential mistress of Charles VII, and probably also of Chevalier himself. An inscription on the rear of the Antwerp panel, dating back to the 18th century, informs us that the diptych was endowed by Etienne to Sorel following a vow he made on her death.
Fouquet paints Sorel with a slim waist, fashionably shaved haircut, and wearing a highly fashionable robe. Her throne is adorned with pearls, precious stones and huge gold tassels, and the background is completely filled with cherubs painted in bright red and blue. The face and skin of Sorel/the Virgin are painted in a pale grey-white, resembling grisaille. This could be an allusion to the fact of her death, which occurred in 1450.
The bare breast remains something of a mystery. Wholly gratuitous - there is no suggestion that the infant Jesus is about to feed from it - its large size, pert appearance, and perfectly spherical shape is a deliberate celebration of sensual beauty, and utterly inappropriate to the Queen of Heaven. As a design for a devotional picture, to be located inside a church, it seems positively scandalous. However, according to both the court chronicler Chastellain, and Enea Silvio Piccolomini (later Pope Pius II), she had rendered valuable service to the crown before dying young in childbirth, and was later euologized in verse by none other than the great King Francis I (1494-1547). Moreover, at the time, few worshippers would have considered it blasphemous to cast a deceased royal mistress as the Virgin Mary. Even so, it found no favour with the Dutch art historian and Medieval chronicler Johan Huizinga, who described the painting as appalling.
The Melun Diptych was originally framed in opulent blue velvet, decorated with gilt medallions and strands of gold and silver thread, in which the donor's initials were woven in pearls, and placed above the tomb of Chevalier's wife in the church of Notre Dame in his native Melun. There for centuries it hung above Chevalier's own tomb, where it was intended to preserve his memory and protect his soul, in conjunction with a daily early morning mass.
Fouquet's Later Career and Legacy
After completing the Melun Diptych, Fouquet continued in royal service. When Charles VII died, for instance, a rider carried his death-mask to Fouquet - then working in Paris - so that the artist might paint it in time for the funeral. However, his position as Royal Painter was only made official by Louis XI in 1475. Although the Louvre museum has several examples of his portrait art, including his portraits of Charles VII, Count Wilczek and Guillaume Jouvenal des Ursins, most of his other religious paintings and portraits have been lost, and he is now best known for his miniatures and his illuminated manuscripts, such as Les Heures d'Etienne Chevalier (1450, Musee Conde, Chantilly), Grandes Chroniques de France (1458, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris), and Statuts de l'ordre de Saint-Michel (1470, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris). For more, see: International Gothic Illuminations (15th century).
Forgotten after his death, but rediscovered during the 19th century, Fouquet retains an eminent position in the development of European art. Art historians regard him as the greatest French painter of the 15th century, noted for his exceptional ability at drawing, and his pioneer French Court style which combined the methods of Early Renaissance Italian artists like Fra Angelico (1387-1455) and Jacopo Bellini (1400-70), with those of Netherlandish Renaissance painters like Robert Campin (1378-1444) and Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441). In a nutshell, he was the first French painter to experience and reproduce Italian Renaissance art, although he adapted it to the traditions of France and the Low Countries.
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