Mystery of the Virgin

The image of Virgin and Child created by Jean Fouquet is rather unusual one. The first thing that catches the eye is the exposed, snow-white Madonna’s breast, so perfectly round that it is almost unreal. In contrast to other images of this type – Madonna lactans, that means the nursing one – Child seems to not have the slightest interest in the breastfeeding. Despite he looks ahead, that means – towards the second part of the composition. There used to be shown Étienne Chevalier in the company of his patron saint – Saint Stephen. Once, both parts were creating a diptych (i.e. a work consisting of two parts), the so-called Diptych of Melun. Currently they are kept apart in the museums in Antwerp and Berlin. Unfortunately, the original frame has not survived. Only a small fragment of it – a medallion with a self portrait of Jean Fouquet – currently belongs to the Louvre’s collection.

A tondo from the lost frame of Melun Diptych, Jean Fouquet, Selfportrait, ca 1450, Louvre

What determines the uniqueness of the work is undoubtedly the load of eroticism, activated by the unexpected nudity of Madonna. The spice is added by the fact that Agnès Sorel – the famous mistress of King Charles VII – was chosen as a model for Virgin. Fouquet must have known her features well, after all, he was a court artist and for sure he was commissioned some of her portraits by the monarch. It is known that this composition with Madonna with exposed breast and Agnès’ face has been developed by Fouquet before. However, first time he decided to abandon it and paint over with a portrait of King Charles VII.

Jean Fouquet, Virgin with Child, from the Melun Diptych, ca 1450, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp 

It is hard to determine a reason why Étienne Chevalier decided to put in his diptych image of the king’s lover with clearly emphasized eroticism. The researchers see this as inspiration by the ancient story of Campaspe, the mistress of Alexander the Great, whose nude was to be painted by the legendary painter Apelles. Stories about ancient artists were becoming popular in the late Middle Ages, especially at the French court, where “Natural History” by Pliny the Elder and works by Petrarch were widely known.

Jean Fouquet, Étienne Chevalier with saint Stephan, from the Melun Diptych, ca 1450, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

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