“The Madonna Surrounded by Seraphs and Cherubs” by Jean Fouquet is an intriguing masterpiece of the late Middle Ages and a jewel in the collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. In early 2019 the painting went to the Getty Museum and Conservation Institute in Los Angeles for thorough study by art historians, restorers and scientists. Now the panel has returned to its home institution, which has published very interesting results of analysis.
“Jean Fouquet’s Madonna looks surprisingly modern. And yet it was created in the middle of the XV century by the French court painter Jean Fouquet by order of Etienne Chevalier, treasurer of the French king Charles VII. The painter presented the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven, the sublime Mother of God. An unusual, intense use of colour and a bold image make the painting truly breathtaking.
Around the main figure are nine angels. Three blue cherubim represent purity and air, six red seraphs represent love and fire. Mary is wearing an aristocratic dress of the XV century, a cloak and crown give her greatness. The narrowed waist accentuates the full, naked breasts, and this brings an almost erotic touch to the scene. Most likely, Jean Fouquet was posed by Agnès Sorel, the mistress and adviser to Charles VII, who gave birth to three children. As a breastfeeding mother, she could embody the common ideal of beauty.
Photo: Royal Museum of Fine Arts / KMSKA
Studies of the Fouquet palette indicated the presence of chemical elements such as lead, cobalt, calcium and mercury. For example, the artist placed a layer of lead whitewash between the ground and the surface layer, while gold-colored details such as the Madonna crown were painted with a pigment containing lead and tin. Maria herself was also painted with lead whitewash.
Getty’s team also found organic dyes in the painting. For example, Fouquet applied them to the Virgin’s cheeks and lips. The painter – and this is especially emphasized – used a huge amount of expensive ultramarine. This pigment was made from powdered lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone imported from Afghanistan. Because of its high value, it was used mainly to represent divine objects.
The customer, Etienne Chevallier, was without doubt a wealthy man. “Madonna surrounded by seraphs and cherubs” is the right panel of a diptych from Melen. The left panel is now in the Berlin Art Gallery. It depicts two restrained men in a strict manner – the Chevalier himself and his patron saint Stephan, the first Christian martyr. The infant Christ on Mary’s lap points to the left panel (more precisely, to Etienne Chevalier), as if saying to his mother: “This man deserves a place in heaven. It is worth putting in a good word for him.”
Fouquet violated the tradition of portraying Madonna as a sensual and fashionable woman. The characteristic features of his figures are alienation and the absent look. The red and blue angels are not an “invention” of the artist himself, but an established way of presenting seraphs and cherubs at that time typical of Italian painting of the XIV-XV centuries.
The California team put the painting on a motorized easel and raised it above the floor. The perspective effect appeared at an altitude of 183 centimeters – Madonna sits comfortably on the throne.