L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Melun Diptych of Jean Fouquet, circa 1452

The Melun Diptych is a two-panel oil painting by the French court painter Jean Fouquet created around 1452. The name of the diptych came from its original home in the Collégiale Notre-Dame de Melun in Melun. The left panel depicts Étienne Chevalier with his patron saint St. Stephen while the right panel depicts the Virgin and Christ child surrounded by cherubim. Each wooden panel measures about 93 by 85 centimeters and the two would have been hinged together at the center. The two paintings, originally a diptych, are now separated. Today the left panel resides in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin while the right panel is in the collection of the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, Antwerp. A self-portrait medallion is also associated with the two panels. Measuring 6 centimeters in diameter, it would have adorned the frame, and consists of copper, enamel, and gold. The medallion is now in the Louvre.

On the left, wearing a red robe, Étienne Chevalier, the treasurer to King Charles VII of France, kneels in prayer. (The king apparently liked to surround himself with non-aristocrats such as Chevalier, thinking them more reliable than nobles.) On the right, with his arm draped around Chevalier's shoulder, is his patron saint, St. Stephen. The saint holds a book in his left hand, and on the book is a jagged rock, a vivid reminder of the manner of St. Stephen's death.

The Virgin is believed to be an idealized portrait of Agnès Sorel, the mistress of King Charles VII who had died two years earlier. Sorel was considered by many at the time to be "the most beautiful woman in the world" and therefore an obvious choice after which to model the Virgin. As minister of finance to the king, Chevalier had been executor of her will. Her costume and physical attributes have been compared to other representations of Sorel, such as another painting by Fouquet in which her dress is very similar to that in the diptych. It has also been suggested, less convincingly, that the model could be Chevalier's wife over whose tomb the diptych was hung in the Collégiale Notre-Dame de Melun.

The original frame was covered in blue velvet with silver and gold embroidery, "lover's knots", and pearls. It also included a self-portrait medallion of Jean Fouquet. The image is in gold engraved into the black enamel background and framed by his name; it is believed that he invented this particular technique. It is traditionally recognized as the oldest self-signed self-portrait and is Fouquet's only signed work.  

Controversy endures over whether a third panel existed, one which has now been lost. Some scholars believe the two paintings were part of a triptych, the third panel depicting Chevalier's wife, Catherine Bude, since it was meant to be hung above her tomb. This would certainly have tied the two different existing panels into a more cohesive ensemble. But the account of Denys Godefroy who saw the piece in its original context in 1660, and is therefore the most reputable source available today, does not describe a third panel.


Jean (or Jehan) Fouquet (circa 1420, Tours – circa 1481, Tours), French painter and miniaturist. A master of panel painting and manuscript illumination, and the apparent inventor of the portrait miniature, he is considered one of the most important painters from the period between the late Gothic and early Renaissance. Little is known of his life and education. Though long assumed to have been an apprentice of the so-called Bedford Master of Paris it is now suggested that he may have studied under the Jouvenal Master in Nantes, whose works were formerly assumed to be early works by Fouquet. But it is certain that he traveled to Italy before 1447, when he executed a portrait of Pope Eugene IV. He was apparently the first French artist to experience first-hand what artists were producing in Italy during the early Renaissance, artists such as Fra Angelico and Filarete. And upon his return to France he blended many of the elements of the Italian style with a French sensibility, forming the basis of early fifteenth century French art and becoming the founder of an important new school. During the 1450s he began working at the French court, counting Charles VII, the treasurer Étienne Chevalier, and the chancellor Guillaume Jouvenel des Ursins among his patrons. Near the end of his career, he became court painter to Louis XI.


  1. Thank you for the history of this fascinating piece(s). I love that self-portrait!

  2. Such a mix of realism and mannered oddness. Red and blue shiny cherubim! That one boob!