Research at the Getty Museum into Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim
An in-depth examination of Jean Fouquet’s Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim was carried out at the J. Paul Getty Museum in L.A.
This intriguing late-medieval masterpiece is the absolute highlight of the KMSKA’s collection. Jean Fouquet’s Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim looks remarkably modern. Yet the French court painter Jean Fouquet painted it 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 exalted mother of God. The unusual, intense use of colour and bold representation make the painting fascinating.
Mary sits on her throne, stiff and still. Or is she actually standing? Nine angels throng around her. The three blue cherubim represent purity and air, the six red seraphim love and fire. Mary is dressed in the aristocratic style of the 15th century. Her cloak and crown emphasize her eminence. The cinched waist accentuates her full, bare breast, which lends an almost erotic touch to the painting. Agnès Sorel was probably the model for the Madonna. The mistress and counsellor of Charles VII was both famous and notorious for her beauty. As the breast-feeding Madonna, Sorel was able to embody the prevailing ideal of beauty.
Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim is one of the two panels of the Melun Diptych – one of Fouquet’s finest works. The left-hand panel is now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. It depicts two reserved men in a business-like, razor-sharp manner. One of them is the commissioner of the work: Etienne Chevalier, treasurer to King Charles VII of France. He is accompanied by his patron saint, Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
Fouquet broke with tradition to paint the Madonna as a sensual and fashionable woman. Characteristic features are the glassy detachment and absent gaze he gave his figures. The child on her lap seems totally uninterested in her breast, and Mary is not really encouraging him to suckle. The Christ Child is focusing on something else. He points towards the other wing of the diptych – more specifically to the artist’s patron, Etienne Chevalier. As if saying to his mother: ‘That man deserves a place in heaven. Will you put in a good word for him?’
The red and blue angels in Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim are typical of Italian painting in the 14th and 15th centuries. In other words, their colour is not an ‘invention’ of the artist himself but an established mode of representation for the time. Blue and red were also the colours of the Paris municipal arms, while white represented royalty. What’s more, Mary wears a cloak made of ermine – the royal fur – above her dress. The work also has a political dimension, therefore, as a glorification of France and its monarchs.