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A young man – the donor – kneels at the door of a late medieval building, and looks out into a walled garden where the Virgin Mary and Christ Child are seated on a flowering bench. He is Philip the Handsome, Archduke of Austria, King of Castile and ruler of the Low Countries.
The painting was, however, made in two stages and Philip was not originally included. It seems to have been begun for a member of the Clugny family as their coat of arms appears in the underdrawing. However, it was either abandoned by them and picked up by a later artist, or adapted to show Philip on their orders. It may have been left unfinished, perhaps as an underdrawing, and completed some years later.
This small painting seems to have been made in two stages, possibly by different artists for different patrons several decades apart. A young man – the donor – kneels at the door of a late medieval building. He looks out into a walled garden with a flowering bench around the edges, a frequent feature of medieval gardens.
Seated here is the Virgin Mary. She holds the Christ Child, who blesses the donor with one hand and holds a string of coral and glass beads in the other. The Virgin was often shown in a walled garden in medieval art, as it was understood as a symbol of her purity: she was herself called a hortus conclusus, a ‘garden enclosed’. Six saints peer curiously over the wall, while behind them is a rolling landscape of hills and cities where daily life continues. In the sky above, angels hold a crown over the Virgin’s head and Saint Michael pushes Satan down from heaven. Heaven would originally have been shown at the top, but this part of the panel has been cut off.
The artist’s style resembles that of Lieven van Lathem, a painter and illuminator working for the Burgundian Court in the 1460s and 1470s, but the donor’s clothes are in the fashion of around 1500. There were no major changes in the course of painting and the donor seems to have been painted by the same artist and at the same time as the other figures. Could the painting have been begun in the 1470s, when the underdrawing was done, but not painted until around 1500?
Heraldic devices perhaps help to solve the mystery. Above the window we see the emblems of a steel, flint and sparks, which were associated with the dukes of Burgundy. The donor wears the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece – a prestigious order of knights founded by Philip the Good in 1430 – and so must be both a duke of Burgundy and a knight of the Order. He is evidently Philip the Handsome, Archduke of Austria, King of Castile and ruler of the Low Countries, who also appears in Philip the Handsome.
The painting did not, however, always show Philip. Technical analysis reveals a shield with a coat of arms in the underdrawing, below his hat and evidently leaning against the wall. It shows two keys, a canting device (a visual pun on a family name): the clés unies (linked keys) stand for the Clugny family from Autun. The painting was presumably begun for them, but either abandoned and picked up later by another patron, or changed into a portrait of Philip on their instructions. One of Lieven’s sons, Jacob, was painter and valet de chambre to Philip the Handsome. None of his works have yet been identified but he might perhaps be the artist of our panel, adapting a work begun in his father’s workshop some decades earlier.
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