07 May 2015

The Virgin of Melun... or the Lady of Beauty: Agnès Sorel


This painting is part of a diptych by Jean Fouquet (Tours 1425-1480), probably the best painter of his time in France, his artistic style positioned halfway between the Gothic tradition and the Italian Quattrocento after his travels to Italy between 1444 and 1447, where he met Fray Angelico and the young Piero della Francesca.



The Virgin of Melun

In the Melun diptych, painted about 1450, Fouquet depicts Etienne Chevalier, treasurer and valid of King Charles VII of France, accompanied by his patron saint St. Stephen, kneeling before a Virgin seated on a throne and surrounded by angels, holding the Child in her lap. 

The Virgin is in the right panel of the diptych, that is made of wood and it measures 91 cm tall and 81 cm wide. Although initially the diptych was destined to the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame in Melun, both panels have been divided between the Koninklijk Museum at Antwerp, that holds the Virgen, and the Staatliche Museen of Berlin, where the portrait of Chevalier is kept. The panel with the Virgin is now on visit at the Museo del Prado in Madrid.




The Virgin of Melun (detail)



The work is of extraordinary beauty. The most outstanding elements are the monumentality of the figures, their compositional simplicity, range of colours and the transparency of the light.
Indeed, the composition is very simple, dominated by a symmetrical structure, based in a triangle formed by the Virgin herself. 

The art of Fouquet is solid and monumental, a geometric style that certainly reminds us of the Quattrocento. This monumentality reaffirms the beauty of this perfect Virgin, simplifying her anatomy to essential geometric forms, so evident in the case of the breasts, but also of the head or the perfect triangle that forms her waist or inversely, her neck and shoulders.




The Virgin of Melun (detail)


The colour frames the figure with a very balanced palette of only intense blue and red, which serves to isolate the sacred image, whose pearly flesh and brilliant light transform it in a shimmering and beautiful icon, similar to the examples that Fouquet had observed in the work of Piero della Francesca, where the light seems to radiate from the image.





The Virgin of Melun (detail)


To all this we must add the thoroughness in the details, typical of a miniaturist like Fouquet, which in the features of the face of the Virgin reaches a delicacy of prodigious and subtle beauty.


We cannot ignore also an evident eroticism, clear and surprising in this image which is at the same time so neat and immaculate. This perception, together with our knowledge of the identity of the model that posed for the Virgin and the ambiguous background of little red angels, confers the image a mundane character which makes it even more beautiful and attractive.




The Virgin of Melun (detail)


It was not strange at the time to show the breast of the Virgin when breastfeeding the Child, so what is unusual in this piece that makes it so disturbing to the viewer?


First, the Virgin is not nursing the Child, but is showing the bare breast to the viewer while Jesus looks to his right. The breast is not that one of a lactating mother but more a smooth adolescent breast. The figure is slender, with cinched waist. A certain sensuality is evident from the roundness of the shoulders, the neck, and the delicate skin of her body.

The dress is elegant and the figure is displayed in a quite a fashionable way, with the head half shaved and coloured lips. Art historian Johan Huizinga found it "a breath of decadent irreligiosity”. In essence, it is the portrait of a courtesan.

Who is this young, suggestive and attractive woman, whose attire contrasts so strongly with the traditional image of the Virgin Mary? In the back of the panel we find an inscription, dated 1775, certified before a notary, which reads: "The Blessed Virgin with the features of Agnès Sorel, favourite of Charles VII, King of France, died in 1450."



Agnes Sorel, as depicted in her tomb in Loches


Agnès Sorel, loved until her death by Charles VII, was born in Fromenteau, Touraine in 1422 and died in Anneville, Normandie, in 1450. Daughter of Jean Soreau and Catherine de Maignelais, she belonged to the lower nobility in France.


As a child she received a careful education and soon stood out for her intelligence and beauty. Their parents must have thought that she deserved a better future than to age in a village and marry a local farmer, so they decided to send her away, still very young, as a lady-in-waiting of Isabelle of Lorraine, Queen of Sicily, wife of René d'Anjou. 

Perhaps in the Court she could find a gentleman and enjoy a life without hardships. But Isabelle offers her such a poor remuneration that in 1433, twenty-one years old, Agnes feels prepared for bigger challenges and moves to the French Court. A year later we find her as lady-in-waiting of the Queen, Marie d'Anjou.




The Virgin of Melun (detail)




Agnes was very pretty and full of vitality, and became very popular in the Court, where soon she will be known as the beautiful Agnes. Chastellain, the chronicler at the Court of the Duke of Burgundy, writes that Agnès Sorel was a woman with such a beauty that the King fell in love as soon as he saw her.


It seems that Queen Marie, not very graceful and devoted entirely to raising their fourteen children, felt enormous sympathy for Agnes. When the flattery of the King exceeded the limits of courtesy and displayed more intimate intentions, Agnes went to seek advice from the Queen. Marie must have thought that, since she could not count on the fidelity of her husband, for whom she never felt great passion, best left in the arms of an ally than risk to found him in the bed of a possible adversary, and gave Agnes her blessing.

The role was not uncommon in her days, when kings were accustomed to visit the alcoves of the ladies of the Court, but so far, such a formalization of this kind of relation had not been seen before in the French court. As Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who would later become Pope Pius II, recounts in his memoirs referring to Agnes: "To the table, in bed, in the Council, she always had to be at his side." Agnes Sorel became the first official mistress of a French king. 




The Virgin of Melun (detail)



Charles VII, totally in love, is willing to satisfy every whim of her lover. And Agnes wants it all. In a few months she becomes the best client of the famous Jacques Coeur, international merchant and great jeweller of the King. She was also bestowed with several titles of nobility: Castellan of Loches, Lady of Beauté-sur-Marne and Countess of Penthièvre.


Agnes was original and extravagant, and soon marked the way for women's fashion at the Court. She combed her hair in dizzying pyramids, walked in robes richly embroidered and her plunging necklines were so spectacular that on one occasion a bishop complained to the King "of the openings in the front, where you can see her breasts and nipples". 

His style was so personal that it is not surprising that Fouquet, subjugated by her beauty, came to represent her in his diptych with such a daring image 




The Virgin of Melun as displayed at the Prado Museum (Madrid, Spain)


Agnès gave birth to three daughters fathered by the King. While pregnant with their fourth child, she journeyed in deep midwinter to join Charles on the campaign of 1450 in Jumièges, wanting to be with him as moral support. There, she suddenly became ill and after giving birth died on 9 February 1450 at the age of 28. 


While the cause of death was originally thought to be dysentery, scientists have now concluded that Agnès died of mercury poisoning, possibly the making of Charle’s son the future King Louis XI, who may have wanted to remove her strong influence over the King.

She was interred in the Church of St. Ours, in Loches, and her heart was buried in the beautiful Benedictine Abbey of Jumièges.




Agnes Sorel Tomb. Loches.













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