|Madonna or madonna?|
During the fifteenth century, France was divided into feudal holdings that in theory were under one royal rule. Many of them, however, were richer and more powerful than the king himself and respect the English supremacy. Being on exile in 1422, Charles VII succeeded his father Charles VI and return to France. Partly with the aid of Joan of Arc the revitalized King´s forces captured Paris in 1436. Slowly Charles VII began firmly establish the power and wealth of the monarchy. Under his rule the French royal court again became a major source of patronage for the arts.
By about 1445, an outstanding, young court artist of the period Jean Fouquet (1420-1481) was appointed as a court painter, portraitist, illuminator and designer to paint portraits of Charles VII, his family and his courtiers, as well as make illustrations for his manuscripts. Among the court officials painted by Fouquet is Étienne Chevalier, French Ambassador to England and from 1450 Treasurer to Charles VII of France.
Following a vow he made on Anges Sorel death in 1450, Étienne Chevalier, the great patron of the painter, commissioned a
diptych to present it to the Notre-Dame Church in Melun.
In their intimacy the donor and the saint are looking towards nursing the Infant Jesus Madonna surrounded by angel, who occupied the central wing of the diptych. Invisible, mystic power draws donor´s and saint´s, as well as accidental guest´s eyes to Madonna´s perfectly round bare breast at the center of the painting. The same power draws their eyes to admire the rest of her great beauty: her higher forehead so fashionable at the period, her slim waist, her crown sumptuously adorned with stones and pearls, and luxurious throne on which she is sitting with distinction of a queen. Infant Jesus (could be any child) seems to be added to the scene to render the scene sacred resemblance. The exposure of her perfect round, firm breast presents an erotic value on its own. The unreal contrast of red (Seraphim) and blue (Cherubim) angels, so admired by Ghirlandaio (1449-14949), and Madonna´s mysterious countenance add to the painting unreal, surrealistic character. It is a remarkable, controversial work of its time, almost bordering on the profane.
The model for Madonna is traditionally said to be Agnes Sorel, the Charles VII´s mistress, the firstwoman in France to hold that semiofficial position. Her great beauty captivated the King, whose love for her remained constant until her death. Her charm, loveliness and intelligence made her to be a queen admired not only by King of France but also by his officials. Her relationship with Étienne Chevalier was not entirely political. It was not a secret that Chevalier burned to her with tender affection. An eighteenth-century inscription on the back of the panel tells us that the diptych of Melun was commissioned by Étienne following a vow he made on her death in 1450.
According to a description of the diptych left us by Denis Godefroy, who had seen it in 1661, the original frames were covered in blue velvet with the donor´s initials woven in pearls and gold, and silver threads, linked together in the shape of eights "lacs d´amour" (lake of love) as a symbol of deep affection. There were also gilded medallions on which stories of the saints were represented.
This first public recognition of his mistress by a king of France scandalized people and awakened jealousy and intrigue, which brought her death by poison in the age of 28. Johan Huizinga in his "The Waning of the Middle Ages" (polish translation "Jesien Sredinowiecza") described this painting as a most appalling example of a dangerous blend of amorous and religious feelings. "There is a flavor of blasphemous boldness about the whole," he wrote. John Halle in "The civilization of Europe in the Renaissance" quotes: "Artists used the features of people known to them and to their audience as attendants in religious narrative, even as Filippo Lippi did in Italy and Jean Fouquet in France, nonchalantly using the mistress they possessed or pained after as models for Mary.".
From 1461 until about 1775 the diptych was in the chancel of the Church
of Notre-Dame at Melun. About 1776, against donor´s will, the two parts of diptych
were separated forever and never reunited except for a short time at Paris during the Exposition of the French "Primitives" in 1904.
Fouquet´s influence on posterity has been considerable. His style has at least two striking characteristics. In depicting the human countenance, he possessed a rare gift of taking life, as it was, and nobody before him could tell and depict a story as he could. Many of the painters remain under the influence of his Madonna´s perfectly round bare breast indisputable charm. The reminiscence of it can be found in the works of great French historical painters, Poussin and Delacroix, impressionists, Gugain, as well as in 20th century modern art, Cindy Sherman.
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