179 – Surviving treasures

Jacques Daret, The Adoration of the Kings, c. 1434-35. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

It’s December 1st – let the Advent Calendars be opened! I wrote one in 2020, and if you want something to read every day, and weren’t with me two years ago, I wrote about a single detail from Gossaert’s glorious Adoration of the Kings for all the days leading up to Christmas. If you do fancy it, click on An Advent Calendar – 1, and once you’ve read it, bookmark the page. Then tomorrow, you can go back, click on Next Post: An Advent Calendar – 2 which you’ll find to the bottom right of the first post, and so on… And if you haven’t read last week’s blog (178 – No crib for a bed), you might want to do that now, as today I will make certain assumptions. I enjoyed looking at one of the panels from Jacques Daret’s Arras Altarpiece, and thought it might be a good idea to look at the others. There are two more today, and a fourth in two weeks’ time. This occurred to me because Monday’s talk (5 December at 6pm), From Shepherds to Kings, will cover the Adoration, one of the four panels to survive. In many respects the next talk will be far more straightforward than last week’s, but it will be interesting to see how the Church celebrates the time between the arrival of the Shepherds (arguably Christmas day itself) and the arrival of the Kings. Although celebrated on the 6th of January (or the evening of the 5th), the precise date of the latter – well, let’s just say that it’s open to debate. One more thing before we get going: a newsflash! I’m adding in a mid-week talk to cover the Sofonisba Anguissola exhibition which is currently on in Nivå, just outside Copenhagen. I’m getting very excited about going to Copenhagen for the first time, and about seeing the work of this remarkable 16th Century woman: I’m bound to want to report back. As everything else is already scheduled, Sofonisba in Denmark will take place on Wednesday 14 December, at the usual 6pm. There are bound to be Christmas parties on, I know, but if you are free it would be lovely to know that you’re there! Meanwhile, back to the Kings.

Mary is seated as if enthroned at one end of the stable – the open, triangular ‘gable’ frames her and acts as a marker of her high status. It’s not entirely clear what she’s sitting on, to be honest, but it appears to be covered with a rich, royal red. At the apex of the ‘gable’ are beams of light emanating from the star, ‘right over the place,’ to quote the carol, ‘where Jesus lay’, although he is now standing, supported by his mother, and holding one hand up to the eldest king. OK, so in theory he is only 12 days old at this point, but he was the Son of God, so anything is possible, including standing up. Mary wears her most usual colour, blue, although as we saw on Monday (and maybe I’ll do a talk about this one day), the precise colours she wears can vary. Here it is a blue cloak over a blue dress. The eldest king is wearing red – often the most expensive fabric, and one associated either with royal courts or with wealthy merchants. That he is a king is vouchsafed by the broad cuffs of his sleeves and the hem of his robe, made of ermine, a pure white creature with a black tip to its tail, the fur of which was often reserved for royalty. His crown – an elaborate red hat – has been taken off and lies on the floor at his feet, a sign of respect for the boy born to be king. Behind him stand his two companions, a middle-aged man with long dark hair and a dark beard, and a young man, with no beard at all. Joseph stands to the left, and also wears red, not because he is part of a royal court (although that could be argued, as step-father to the second member of the Holy Trinity), but as a sign of his status (for the same reason). As in the Nativity, which we saw last week, notice how he is, nevertheless, slightly excluded from the proceedings. The king kneels in front of Mary and Jesus, who (if we adjust for the point of view) are in the centre of the opening to the stable, whereas Joseph is ‘outside’, cut off from the action by the same rough-hewn tree trunk which excluded him before. And this is something I love about these paintings: it is the same stable, but seen from a different angle. I really hope these two pictures end up next to each other, but it depends on the type of device you are using, I think.

In the Nativity we are alongside the stable, whereas the point of view for the Adoration is a diagonal, from what was the front right. The rough-hewn, slender trunk at the corner is the same, with a y-shaped cleft at the top, supporting the horizontal beam which runs along the bottom of the sloping roof. The diagonal beam which forms part of the ‘A’-frame at the end projects beyond this cleft in both images, and the same bevelled branches are attached top and bottom of the slender trunk to make it more secure. The back wall of the stable has an open window divided into three by two vertical beams – it can be seen next to the midwife Zelomi in the Nativity and above the head of the eldest king in the Adoration. If we were watching this in the theatre, a high budget production would place the stable on a revolve, but with less money a couple of stage hands would have to run on and trundle it round the requisite 45˚. And yet, even if the stable is the same, there is a major difference. One of the actors appears to have been replaced by his understudy.

Compare these two images of Joseph. All that really remains the same is the shape of the face, and arguably the purse – green, with diagonal decorations, slung on a dark leather belt.  The coat has been removed, yes, but everything else looks different. The robe has changed from purple (in the Nativity) to red, and the hat, which he has now put back on, has a more blue-ish tinge. It is worthwhile remembering that these paintings are now in two different museums, have different histories, and have probably been given different conservation treatments. Not only that, but different cameras were used to take the photographs, under different lighting conditions. So a few variations in tone and hue would be understandable, but not a shift from purple to red. And what would definitely not happen is a change in age. In the Nativity Joseph had white hair and a white beard, in the Adoration all this has miraculously gone brown – he has regained his lost youth! Now, given some of the stories which surround the birth of Jesus, this would not surprise me, but I have never come across a story which includes Joseph’s rejuvenation. What seems more likely is that this is a studio production – everything of any scale was – and that different members of the workshop painted the two Josephs. The general shapes and overall details of props and costume remain the same, but colours are different.

The gesture which Joseph uses, with his right hand cupped to the side of his head, is not familiar to me, but the same gesture is employed by the middle-aged king. Admittedly the latter is on the verge of removing his crown, but nevertheless it is similar, and I imagine it could be an expression of awe. Unless, that is, Joseph has decided he shouldn’t have put his hat back on after all. He is wearing a common form of medieval headgear called a chaperon, made up of three elements – the patte, which could be a relatively simple cap, although it could become more elaborate, surrounded by a bourrelet, which is a round, effectively donut-like form, and a liripipe (or cornette), which we see as a long tail which hangs down as far as Joseph’s knees. Chaperons are commonly seen in portraiture: several of Jan van Eyck’s sitters wear them, for example. Meanwhile, as we saw before, the eldest king has placed his crown on the floor. With his left hand he passes the gift of gold to Joseph, who is, likewise, reaching out to take it with his left. I have seen him given this practical responsibility – of looking after the gifts – more than once. With his right hand the king holds the child’s tiny arm, preparing to kiss Jesus’s hand as a further acknowledgement of his respect.

If you look back to the full picture, you will see that the youngest king has removed his hat, and holds it by his side. The middle king wears a turban, topped by crown-like elements. The turban was commonly used as an ‘exotic’ feature, to mark the king as ‘other’, and to explain that he was not European. However, there is no black king here: it was really at about the time this image was painted that the the black king starts to appear. Within a few decades he would become a constant presence. The gospels do not say where, exactly, the kings came from. But then, the gospels do not mention kings at all. According to Matthew 2:1,  ‘there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem’. It doesn’t even mention how many. So why three, and why kings? Well, they brought three gifts, and the number three is significant because of the Holy Trinity. That’ll do for a start. But then, they were also seen as representing the three known continents (Europe, Africa and Asia), although not all three are ‘east’ of Jerusalem. They are also frequently interpreted as representing the three ages of man: old, middle-aged (or ‘mature’) and young. As for their identification as kings – well, you’ll have to wait until Monday for that to be explained.

In the same way that the Nativity shows us the next bit of the story – the Annunciation to the Shepherds – so does this Adoration. Way away in the distance at the top right we can see soldiers on horseback emerging from behind a hill, and, on the far right, they have gathered in front of a wooden building, where you might be able to discern frenetic activity. The scale is tiny, and the image unclear, but these are Herod’s men. The kings were warned not to tell Herod of Jesus’s whereabouts, and the jealous monarch has realised that they have not reported back. He sent his men out to kill all the infant males – an episode known as the Massacre of the Innocents – and that is what is taking place in and around the wooden building.

The Nativity and Adoration, together with this Visitation (the story was covered in Monday’s talk), were all painted for the outside of the wings of an altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin in the Abbey of St Vaast in Arras, now known either as the Arras Altarpiece or the St Vaast Altarpiece, for obvious reasons. It was commissioned by the man who had been abbot there since 1428, Jean de Clercq, Daret’s great patron. It is him kneeling between St Elizabeth and his own coat of arms in this Visitation. He kept remarkably good account books, which record Daret’s activities over a period of about 20 years – but sadly the results of almost all of this have been lost. When open the wings revealed a sculpture of The Coronation of the Virgin above a series of sculptures of the twelve apostles. Although he did not carve them, Daret was paid to paint this ensemble, and to build and decorate the structure which framed and supported all the figures. On the inside, the wings were painted blue and decorated with gold fleur-de-lys. When closed, they were surmounted by an Annunciation group (presumably with Gabriel above the left wing, and Mary above the right), but that is now lost. The four surviving panels – the Visitation, Nativity, Adoration of the Kings which we are looking at today, and the Presentation in the Temple which I will come back to – made up the remainder of the wings. We know this thanks to a description from 1651, but sadly, some time later, and probably in the 18th Century, the whole structure was dismantled, and everything, apart from the four painted panels, was lost. This is a great pity – but it is a reminder that the vast majority of paintings from the 15th Century and before have been lost. We are so lucky to have the elements which survive – and I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve seen them all yet: there is still so much more to look forward to! Some of these treasures will inevitably be included on Monday

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

3 thoughts on “179 – Surviving treasures

  1. Once again just brilliant! I sent a link to these Nativity essays to a monk at Ampleforth who has further recommended them to others. He was very impressed so well done!


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