Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim
This intriguing late-medieval masterpiece is the absolute highlight of the KMSKA’s collection.The French court painter Jean Fouquet created this apparent modern painting in the middle of the 15th century. The work was commissioned by Etienne Chevalier, treasurer to King Charles VII of France. Fouquet presents the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven. The three blue cherubim represent purity and air, the six red seraphim love and fire. The unusual, intense use of colour and bold representation make the painting fascinating. Agnès Sorel was probably the model for the Madonna. She was the mistress and counsellor of Charles VII. As the breast-feeding Madonna, Sorel was able to embody the prevailing ideal of beauty.
- Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim
- c. 1450
- 92 × 83,5 cm
- Inventory number:
More about this work
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.
bequest of: ridder Florent van Ertborn, 1841
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