The Melun Diptych by Jean Fouquet

The Melun Diptych by Jean Fouquet (c.1450)

In my last blog I looked at an altarpiece by Michael Pacher and discussed terms such as diptych, triptych and polyptych, which all referred to panel paintings which were hinged together.  Although we looked at a triptych altarpiece this form of art was not only used in the depiction of religious personages.   There were many commissions for the diptych when it came to secular portraiture.  Often it would be the portrait of the husband on one panel with the portrait of his wife on the other.  The diptych was quite a common format in the Early Netherlandish paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries. In my blog today I want to look at a fifteenth century diptych, known as the Melun Diptych, which was the work of the great French painter and manuscript illustrator, Jean Fouquet.  Although the attached photograph above shows the two paintings as a diptych, the two panels are now separated.  Up until 1775, the diptych remained in the church of Notre Dame in Melun. However the church fell on hard times and needed money to help pay for the building’s restoration.  The elders of the church decided to raise funds for the building work by selling the diptych.  The right wing with the Madonna and Child was sold to the mayor of Antwerp and it has remained in the Belgian city ever since.  It is now housed in Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp (The Royal Museum of Fine Arts).    The left hand panel of Chevalier and St Stephen was purchased by Clemens Brentano, the German poet and novelist in 1896.  This panel is now housed in Staatliche Museen, Berlin.   Each of the wood panels measure 93cms x 85cms.

Jean Fouquet was born in Tours, a town in the Loire Valley, around 1420.  It is thought that Fouquet’s initial artistic training was at a studio in Paris, where he was educated in the ways of a manuscript illuminator and painting of miniatures.   It is also believed that he may have worked as an apprentice in the Bourges workshops of the Netherlandish painter, Jacob de Littemont, who was the court painter to Charles VII and later, Louis XI, a position that Fouquet himself would hold in 1475.    His first recorded painting dates back to 1440, and was entitled The Court Jester Gonella, who was the court jester of Nicholas III d’Este.  I featured that painting in My Daily Art Display of December 14th 2010.

Portrait of Charles VII by Jean Fouquet (c.1445)

In 1445 he completed one of his first very large panel portraits entitled Portrait of King Charles VII.  It was the portrait of the French ruler, Charles VII.  The king is painted between drawn curtains. The artist has painted the king in three-quarters profile and the inscription on the frame “le trés victorieux roy de France” reminded everybody that this was the ruler who brought the Hundred Years’ War to a triumphant end.   Ironically it was one of the few battlefield victories achieved by the ruler.

In 1446, Fouquet accompanied a French delegation, as court painter on a mission to Rome, as records of the trip where chronicled by the Italian artist Antonio Filarete.  The following year, Fouquet completed the commission to produce a portrait of Pope Eugenius IV with his two nephews, which was hung in the sacristy of the Dominican convent of Basilica of Saint Mary Above Minerva in Rome.  It was probably this connection with the Dominican convent that led him to be introduced to the great Italian Renaissance painter and Dominican friar, Fra Angelico, who was at that time working on the frescoes in the chapel of Saint Peter,

When Fouquet returned to France in 1448, he opened a workshop in Tours and married.   He worked for the French court and carried out commissions for King Charles VII, the king’s treasurer Etienne Chevalier, and the king’s chancellor Guillaume Jouvenel des Ursins. A number of these commissions were miniatures, such as the Book of Hours of Étienne Chevalier.  In 1475, Jean Fouquet became the court painter to Louis XI.   Fouquet died in Tours in November 1481.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is the Melun Diptych, so named as its original resting place was the cathedral at Melun, a town in the south-eastern suburbs of Paris.   This was a commission Fouquet received from Etienne Chevalier.  Estienne Chevalier came from Melun and worked for the government.  His initial posting was as French Ambassador to England in 1445.  Six years later he became Treasurer to Charles VII of France. Once Fouquet had completed the diptych, Chevalier presented it to his home town.  The diptych was made to be placed above the tomb of Chevalier’s wife, Catharine Bude, in the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame, in Melun.  As I said in my introduction the diptych doesn’t exist anymore as a hinged pair and sadly, another thing we cannot see is the original framing.  According to a description of the paintings by Denis Godefroy, a seventeenth century historian, the original frames were covered in blue velvet. Around each picture were strands of gold and silver thread, in which the donor’s initials were woven in pearls. There were also gilded medallions on which stories of the saints were represented.

The Left wing of the diptych
Etienne Chevalier and St Stephen

Let us first look at the left hand panel of the diptych.  On the left wing of the diptych, Etienne Chevalier had himself painted next to his patron saint, Stephen (“Etienne” when translated into the English language is “Stephen).  Chevalier kneels in a red robe with his hands clasped in prayer.  The red colour of the robe indicates the status of Chevalier as it was the most expensive coloured dye and was reserved for high-ranking magistrates.   Next to him we have Saint Stephen wearing the dark robes of a deacon with its gold trim.  Stephen’s right arm is draped around the shoulders of Etienne Chevalier in a protective manner.   In the left hand of the saint there is a book, on which a jagged stone is lying.  This symbolises his martyrdom (St Stephen was stoned to death).  The background consists of Italian Renaissance style architecture with pilasters, in between which are inlaid marble panels.  The floor is made of neutral coloured tiles, which allows a glaring contrast with the highly coloured clothing of then two figures.  On the wall, receding in perspective, the name of Estienne Chevalier (IER ESTIEN ) is inscribed.   The two men look to their left at the Madonna and Child, who is portrayed on the right wing of the diptych and in some way if we look at the two panel paintings of the diptych together, it appears that St Stephen is introducing Etienne Chevalier to the Madonna and Child.  The plunging perspective Fouquet has used in this painting has in some way moved the two characters closer to us and they dominate the work.

The Right wing of the diptych
Madonna and Child

Now let us look at the right hand wing of the diptych, which is entitled Madonna and Child.  The first thing that strikes the observer is the strange and vibrant colouring used in the painting.  The unnatural colours have been attributed to represent the heraldic colours of the French king, being red, white, and blue.   It is generally agreed by art historians that the features of the Madonna are those of Agnès Sorel.  She was a favourite mistress of Charles VII and bore him three daughters.  She was known by the nickname, Dame de beauté.  In 1450, Charles was away on a campaign at Jumièges.  Agnès Sorel was at her home in Chinon, which the king had provided for her, but she wanted to be with Charles to give him some moral support.    Despite being pregnant with their fourth child and it being a cold mid-winter day, she journeyed from her residence to join Charles at the village of Le Mesnil-sous-Jumièges.  It was here that she suddenly became ill and died at the age of 28.   While the cause of death was originally thought to be dysentery, in 2005 French forensic scientist Philippe Charlier examined her remains and determined that the cause of death was mercury poisoning, but offered no opinion about whether she was murdered.   Agnès Sorel held great influence over the king and many historians believe that this made her many enemies, including the king’s son, the future king, Louis XI, and it could well be that she had been deliberately poisoned by her enemies.  However this theory does not receive unanimous agreement as historians point out that, at that time, mercury was sometimes used in cosmetic preparations or to treat worms and that might have brought about her death.

However there is another theory about the identification of the lady in the painting.  Jan Schafer in his 1994 book, Jean Fouquet an der Schwelle zur Renaissance, stated that he believed that the woman in the painting could have been Etienne Chevalier’s wife, Catherine Bude, over whose tomb the diptych was hung in Notre Dame, Melun.

This right-hand panel depicts the Virgin and Child seated on a jewelled throne with its marble panels and adorned with large gold tassels.  The Virgin and Child are surrounded by red and blue coloured cherubs and seraphims, which greatly contrast with the pale skin of the Virgin and child. The Madonna wears a blue dress, white mantle and a jewel-encrusted crown.  Once again we have the colour combination of red, white and blue.  The bodice of the dress is unlaced, giving us a view of her perfectly spherical left breast, which she has offered to the Child on her knee.  She has the bulging shaved forehead which was fashionable at that time. Her facial and skin tone, as well as the body of the Infant Jesus, are of a pale grey-white colour, as if painted in grisaille (painted entirely in monochrome or near-monochrome).  The colour Fouquet has used to depict her skin and the grey-blue colour he has used to depict her robe gives the Madonna a look of lethargy and sleepiness. The child ignores the proffered breast and instead looks at and points towards Chevalier and St Stephen.

The prominent Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote about this panel in his 1919 book entitled Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen which was translated five years later as The Waning of the Middle Ages.  He condemned the work as “blasphemous libertarianism”.  In his book he wrote about how he considered this painting a fine example of decadence in the late Middle Ages, when religious feelings came close to erotic ones. He wrote:

“…No instance of this dangerous association of religious with amatory sentiments could be more striking than the Madonna ascribed to Foucquet…”

“…The bizarre inscrutable expression of the Madonna’s face, the red and blue cherubim surrounding her, all contribute to give this painting an air of decadent impiety in spite of the stalwart figure of the donor…”

“..There is a flavour of blasphemous boldness about the whole, unsurpassed by any artist of the Renaissance…”

And so the two halves of the diptych were split up and never re-united.  Well actually they were, for in 1904, France borrowed the panels from Berlin for an exhibition of French primitives.

There are many unanswered questions with regards to these paintings and the background to their composition:

Was the Madonna based on Agnès Sorel or Catharine Bude?

Did Agnès Sorel die of dysentery during the birth of her stillborn fourth child or was she murdered on the orders of Charles VII’s son, the future King Louis XI?

Was there a third panel and in fact what we are seeing is two parts of a triptych?  The third panel was rumoured to be depicting Etienne Chevalier’s wife Catharine.

Besides Agnès Sorel being King Charles VII’s mistress was she also the mistress of Etienne Chevalier?

I am sure you will agree that we have before us today two beautiful wood panel paintings and the story behind them is fascinating.