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Object details

Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim
c. 1450
92 × 83,5 cm
Inventory number: 

More about this work

The enthroned Madonna holds the Christ Child on her knee. She is robed as a queen, with an ermine cloak and a crown decorated with pearls and precious stones. She is surrounded by the two kinds of angel whom the influential Christian thinker Pseudo-Dionysius classified as the most important creatures in heaven. The red seraphim were the highest in rank. They are the most numerous and stand closest to the Madonna, touching her throne. The blue cherubim came second in the heavenly hierarchy, and are praying in the background.

The painting is the right-hand panel from a diptych, the other half of which is in Berlin. It shows Etienne Chevalier, who commissioned the work, and his patron saint, St Stephen, in a Renaissance building. Chevalier is praying while Stephen lays his hand on his back. The two panels refer to each other, with Chevalier directing his prayer to the right-hand panel, and the Christ Child pointing towards the left-hand panel. A window in the building in the left panel may be reflected in the two globes on the left of the Madonna’s throne.
The original diptych was described in detail in 1661. Each panel had a blue frame decorated with embroidery and enamel medallions. Only one medallion has survived, and shows a self-portrait of Jean Fouquet (Louvre, inv. no. OA 56). The two frames were attached to each other with hinges, meaning that the diptych could be closed to display the painted back of the Berlin panel. That scene has been lost without trace, because at some stage the support was sawn down crosswise. The original form suggests that the painting served as an altarpiece. That fits with the fact that the painting hung in the Church of Notre Dame in Melun, where Chevalier had a chapel.

Etienne Chevalier was the treasurer to Charles VII of France. There are no documents relating to the commission, but dendrochronological and stylistic analysis suggest that the work was ordered around 1450 from Jean Fouquet, France’s leading artist at the time and an exceptional painter and miniaturist. Fouquet probably did not design this scene for Chevalier but for Charles VII. X-radiographs of his Portrait of Charles VII, which predates the Antwerp panel, reveal an earlier version of the Madonna. It is not clear why Fouquet eventually chose to paint a portrait of the king over that work, but it is assumed that Chevalier ordered a repetition after seeing the earlier version.

An old tradition has it that the figure of the Madonna is based on Agnes Sorel (1422-1450), a mistress of Charles VII who was renowned for her beauty. That tradition is probably true, since Fouquet’s Madonna resembles Sorel’s tomb portrait in Loches, which is the only surviving 15th-century depiction of her. The Madonna’s attire also appears to be a reference to Sorel. She was usually depicted in a gown, but here she is wearing a dress with bared shoulders, which is a type of garment that Sorel introduced at the French court. He innovative and revealing clothing caught the eye of both critics and admirers. For a long time it was considered incompatible for Sorel to have been given the part of the Virgin in an altarpiece for Chevalier. That, though, is not necessarily problematic. Chevalier may have been paying homage to Charles VII with this work, or to Sorel herself. They were no strangers to each other, for he was the executor of her will.

Madonna surrounded by seraphim and cherubim is one of the iconic works of the KMSKA. The snow-white Madonna and Child, combined with the red and blue colours of the angels, give the picture a surreal and timeless quality. But it was not always popular. That is shown, among other things, by the Melun church’s decision to sell the work in 1775. When Florent van Ertborn bought it a few decades later, a specialist friend of his advised him to hang it in a dark corner. Barely anything was written about the panel in the early years after Van Ertborn bequeathed it to the museum in 1841. It was only in the 20th century that Fouquet’s Madonna came to be hailed as a masterpiece.

Acquisition history

bequest of: ridder Florent van Ertborn, 1841

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