Melun Diptych - Jean Fouquet’s 15th Century Lapis Madonna
A marble Madonna gazes down from the 15th century “Virgin & Child Surrounded by Angels,” an oil painting on panel in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Elegantly rendered, sublimely painted with three pigments coveted by painters for all times, this 560 year old art object is priceless.
Johannes Fouchetus (Jean Fouquet) was not familiar but his mastery of materials and marvelous design sent me looking for him. Why did a patron and painter commit enough Lapis to color a year’s worth of illuminated manuscripts to making a single painting?
I found him in France, early renaissance. History picks up the story of an unusually talent young painter, one among freelance apprentices who traveled and worked in studios making mostly religious art objects from Florence to Bruges in mid-15th century.
Fouchetus was the Flemish name for French painter, Jean Fouquet, also know as Grachetto in Italy. A masterpainter of tempera on vellum and parchment, an innovator of the emerging techniques of glazing with oils and blending wet into wet, Fouquet was the master illuminator of his generation.
Since the turn of the 20th century, art historians consider him the greatest French painter of the 15h century.
Professional painters must have made their best money illuminating manuscripts. Nobility, wealthy merchants and the clergy demonstrated their prosperity by the quality of their libraries.
Demand increased in the era after the “Black Death,” which killed a third of Europe’s population, because Christians used books full of colorfully illuminated prayers to bring public devotion into private chapels away from crowds at church and exposure to disease.
Because most people were not literate, intimately drawn and painted books projected stories on to vellum and into the eyes. The eyes were the gateway to the soul. From creation to cruxifixction, the stories were told in human form. Fouquet’s illuminations are described as unusual in their naturalism, use of local architecture and landscapes rather than the idealized Holy Lands.
Other than the prayer books, art belonged to the Church.
Perhaps by owning these prayer books, people acquired a taste for art collecting.
Jean Fouquet was born in Tours, France after 1406 and before 1420.
By comparing techniques and materials, he probably apprenticed in the studio of the Bedford Masters, one of two prominent workshops producing illuminated manuscripts in Paris. His work in the studio would have been more like work in manufacturing than painting in a loft downtown.
Goldsmithing, leather tanning, preparing vellum, making paper, paint and ink are all essential tasks of a production system through which the skill of the master painter has shined for centuries.
Because they were also working in Paris, he may have associated with Netherlandish artists, including the Limbourgh brothers, master illuminators of the Northern style.
And because an image of Jan Van Eyck’s appears among Fouquet’s miniature paintings, some speculate that he spent time with Van Eyck’s studio in Bruges.
Whether he or Van Eyck painted the first self portrait, Fouquet was among the first to paint miniature portraits, many of which were used for identification at border crossings.
By the time Fouquet was summoned to Rome to paint the portrait of Pope Eugenius IV circa 1437, he was an international art superstar. The painting, now lost, was remarkable to Varsari because the portrait was painted on linen canvas. As an illuminator, he may have preferred painting on flexible supports. Also as an itinerant painter, he may have made his paintings easy to transport.
Fouquet returned to France recognized as a “supreme expert” and joined the court under the patronage of Etienne Chevalier, Secretary of State/Treasurer of the Court of Charles VII.
With such a prominent and wealthy patron, Fouquet would have had access to the finest quality pigments, binders and diluents. That explains his lavish use of very expensive red and blue color in “Virgin & Child Surrounded by Angels”
The pigment, mercuric-sulfide,was rarely used in tempera and fresco painting because it darkens when exposed to light, air and certain metals.
If a painter wanted a brilliant opaque red, Vermillion pigment ground in oil was the best choice. Use of Vermillion is an early indicator of oil painting. Naturally occurring as Cinnabar, Vermillion mercuric-sulfide pigment was first synthesized in the 8th century. Less expensive than Cinnabar, the pigment still required hard work using a mortar & pestle to grind pigment fine enough to make paint.
A mortar is a primitive hand mill only powerful enough to disperse clumps of pigments a little each time. Over and over, fine grinding was essential because it dramatically improves the brilliance of “Chinese Red.” Valued for its covering power as well as warm red color, Vermillion red stays bright and true when coated in linseed oil, a powerful binder that hardens and seals pigment from the environment.
Mixing finely ground Vermillion pigment into oil yields a smooth, opaque paint the quality of which was not replaced until the early 20th century when Cadmium Red became available.
Fouquet was a master painter who accounted for the natural darkening of Vermillion when mixed with or next to Flake White by folding their intersections into shadows which have deepened, darkened over time making this painting looks even more dimensional. Flake (lead) White cooled with Lapis blue gives a look of classical sculpture to the forms.
Also Flake White was used to create light impasto and a sense of depth in the painting. Other whites based on calcium carbonate, for example, were used to form isolating layers which we can see inside her very translucent veil.
Lapis blue was a symbol of that which is pure and rare.
The pigment is non reactive. However, grinding the Philosopher’s stone was tricky. Grind too lightly, the pigment is coarse, chunky, too pale a blue. Grind down too far, the color goes forever grey. Rock, not mineral, lapis is the most rare, true blue color mined from the earth. Around us are blue skies and water ways but only a few places produce lapis lazuli.
Afghanistan has traded lapis for 6000 years along the silk road.
Thousands of lapis statues and seals were found in royal Sumerian burial tombs at UR (circa 3000 BCE). Alexander the Great brought lapis west about 4th century BCE to the delight of the Egyptians.
In early Renaissance Europe, most colors were made from earth pigments or colorants that faded. It was common knowledge that Vermillion and Lapis were bright and permanent.
Using, especially, lapis blue pigment in art work was a signal to the viewer to pay attention because only really good painters could afford to use lapis.
According to alchemical lore, the prima materia is associated with the virgin mother who gives birth to the Lapis, the Philosopher's Stone.
After his return to France, Fouquet continued to follow the new Italian trend of adding portraits of real people into religious groups. Medieval portraiture was not so much about what a person really looked like but how a person wanted to be remembered.
The early Renaissance style was more natural, the subject was more present. During his career Fouquet flirted with the tension between realism and idealism.
And in that spirit, Fouquet made a portrait of a prominent lady of the French Court, Agnes Sorel, easily recognizable as a real woman in the idealized traditional pose of the Virgin Mother, presenting one bare breast flowing with the milk of salvation.
Fouquet made this tender portrait using a limited palette of inexpensive earth colors, brown, black, sienna, yellow ochre, a smidgen of white and a dash of earth red. Knowing Fouquet had access to all the pigments he wanted, he chose the colors traditionally used to make sketches and studies.
Perhaps his patron, Chevalier, had already proposed a major painting - a diptych, as a gift for the Cathedral in Melun, Chevalier’s home town, This was a preliminary sketch?
One old story mentioned Chevalier’s intention was to honor the Blessed Mother and request her to intercede on behalf of Agnes Sorel. I wonder when the painter and his patron figured out that using the King’s mistress as a model for the Queen of Heaven was not such a good idea?
Perhaps, before they figured it out, Agnes Sorel died in 1450.
Certain mysteries continues to surround her death. Perhaps she died of poisoning, Court intrigue or perhaps her lip color contained toxic mercuric sulfide Vermillion. The King believed she’d been poisoned, he was suspicious of his son and advisors.
Chevalier, history records, was among Agnes Sorel’s favorites at Court. While a few accounts point to a romantic alliance, most point to the trust Charles VII placed in his Royal Treasurer/Secretary of State who often traveled with his “Lady of Beaute” at the King’s request.
Etienne Chevalier is remembered as a man of sterling character.
And like all who knew her, Chevalier must have been deeply saddened by her death.
Looking at them together the two panels seem to be caught in a realism/idealism cross current. Two panels, two different styles, certainly made with different color palettes. The color choices make the “Chevalier” Panel appear natural. Fouquet portrayed his patron sadly looking out of the picture frame.
St. Stephen’s gaze is down on the nail next to the child. The Infant Jesus points toward Chevalier’s hands. This is an odd religious group. A single mournful red angel looks out.
Grief at the loss of a special friend so suddenly maybe was enough to inspire Chevalier to ask Fouquet to transform a fortune in hand-ground colors in to a painting. Maybe Chevalier saw the study and urged Fouquet to finish the altar piece. Without his real model, Fouquet may have idealized her on a classical model worthy of his most expensive paints.
Imagine the outrage of the Queen of France, Marie of Anjou, when she saw the painting representing her husband’s dead mistress as the Queen of Heaven. I am sure there is a hallway in history where her scream can still be heard.
She endured the humiliation of her husband’s very public affair with the “Lady of Beaute” who seemed to be the only antidote to his depression. Agnes Sorel died young, tragically, carrying theKing’s child, warning him of treachery. Now this? So near the end of the 100 years war, the King could not sink deeper into depression.
“Get rid of that painting. Get rid of that painter.”
Jean Fouquet was not promoted to Court Painter until after the death of Charles VII. The most accomplished artist of his time was punished, made to wait a decade to gain his rightful position.
Regardless of Chevalier’s involvement (see his very clean hands), Fouquet made the fatal error of assuming the Court of France in 1450 included sophisticated Italian Humanists.
Most French aristocrats were probably horrified at the the blasphemy of idealizing a commoner as the Queen of Heaven in a “priceless” painting.
In1461, after Charles VII had died and he had retired from Court, Chevalier commissioned Fouquet to make a prayer book, a very special edition of THE BOOK OF HOURS in which the face of Agnes Sorel appears in more than half the paintings.
The Melun Diptych framed in dark blue velvet embroidered with silver and gold threads stayed with Chevalier until he died. For less than a year, the diptych hung in the Melun Cathedral before being taken down, taken apart and shipped out of France in 1475.
Chevalier made sure future viewers would know about Agnes Sorel when he had this label affixed to the back of the diptych and Fouquet attached this medallion (self portrait) as his signature:
The “Virgin & Child” panel was sent to Antwerp where for centuries people like me have stood in front of her knowing/feeling this painting is priceless. The Queen of Heaven never looked better.
The “Chevalier” panel went first to Frankfurt then to Berlin.
Only one time have the panels hung together - in 1904 in Paris until Fall 2017 when Agnes Sorel will be reunited with her admirers in Berlin.