The Donne Triptych
Courtier and soldier Sir John Donne kneels before the Virgin and Christ Child in the central panel of this triptych (a painting in three parts), which he commissioned, facing his wife Elizabeth and one of their daughters. With them are Saints Catherine and Barbara, two of the most popular medieval saints; the wings show Donne’s patron saints, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. On the outside of the wings Saints Christopher and Anthony Abbot are shown as stone statues in niches.
The younger son of a Welsh soldier, Donne was a career administrator who owed his fortune to King Edward IV. He and his wife wear the King’s livery collars. The composition is a version of Memling’s famous Triptych of the Two Saints John (Memling Museum, Bruges), which he worked on in the late 1470s. Perhaps Donne saw it in Memling’s workshop and asked for something similar.
Sir John Donne – courtier, soldier and commissioner of this small triptych – kneels before the Virgin and Christ Child in the triptych’s central panel, facing his wife Elizabeth Hastings and one of their daughters. They are being presented to the Virgin by Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Barbara. Donne’s patron saints, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, appear on the triptych’s wings; on the outside of these, Saint Christopher and Saint Anthony Abbot are painted in grisaille to look like stone statues in niches.
Donne, whose coats of arms are attached to the capitals in the centre panel and reappear in the stained-glass window of the right wing, was the younger son of a Welsh soldier and owed his rise to fame and fortune to King Edward IV. At this time, rival branches of the royal family were fighting for control of the English throne, in a conflict now known as the Wars of the Roses: the House of Lancaster (associated with a red rose) and the House of York (whose symbol was a white rose). Both Donne and his wife wear the King’s livery collars of suns and roses with white, presumably enamelled, lions as a sign of their political allegiance to the house of York.
He must have been one of Hans Memling’s best connected clients. The royal family and their immediate circle were his friends and associates. His wife, Elizabeth Hastings, was sister of Edward’s favourite, William, Lord Hastings and lady-in-waiting to Edward’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville. Both Hastings and Edward IV were important patrons of Netherlandish artists, and in Edward’s service Donne came into contact with his ‘true friend’ Margaret of York, his ‘bonne amie’ Mary of Burgundy and other significant patrons in the Low Countries. He owned several Netherlandish manuscripts, including a spectacular illuminated Book of Hours. Not from the first ranks of the aristocracy himself, art was perhaps a way of emphasising his closeness with the inner circles of royal power, as well as his piety.
In 1468 he was in Bruges for the extravagant wedding of Edward’s sister Margaret to the Duke of Burgundy. He might have been with Edward in his exile in the Netherlands in 1470–71; certainly he fought for him at the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, a decisive battle in the Wars of the Roses, and was knighted on the field. He acted as ambassador to the French and Burgundian courts in the 1470s, as well as being closely involved in the government of Calais, then the only remaining English possession on the Continent. He died in 1503 and he and his wife were eventually buried alongside Edward IV in Saint George’s Chapel at Windsor.
Memling was a businessman as well as an artist. He ran an efficient workshop and recycled and reused existing compositions and figures with skill and efficiency. This triptych is so similar to the Triptych of the Two Saints John (Memling Museum, Bruges) that it must be from much the same period; perhaps Donne saw it in Memling’s workshop and asked for something similar. All the figures – except, of course, the donors – and many of the objects recur in other pictures by Memling or from his workshop: in the National Gallery’s collection alone, the same Virgin is in The Virgin and Child with an Angel, Saint George and a Donor and the figure of the Baptist is also in Saint John the Baptist. Even members of the Donne family were probably partly painted from patterns. Lady Donne’s clothes are more suited to a Burgundian aristocrat than the wife of a minor Welsh nobleman, and her face and hat were adapted at a late stage.
We don‘t know exactly when Donne commissioned the painting but the content gives us clues. Probably born in the early 1420s, Donne would have been in his fifties in the 1470s, and the donor in Memling’s picture is a clearly middle-aged man: his hair is thin and his face lined. He was married to Elizabeth Hastings by March 1465. His wife was perhaps considerably younger than him, and might be in her thirties. They had several children including two surviving daughters, Anne and Margaret. Their oldest surviving son, Edward, seems to have been born in or after 1482. As he is not shown it seems likely that when the order was placed the Donnes had only one child, a girl, who looks about six to eight years old. We don’t know when their daughters were born, but a date in the mid- or late 1470s seems probable.
The triptych was not necessarily commissioned for any specific church or chapel. Sir John’s parents had obtained papal permission to have a portable altar in 1443 and it is possible that he had altars in his residences. The Donnes had estates in South Wales and a house at Calais, though his principal seat seems to have been at Horsenden in Buckinghamshire. He and his wife were buried in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle and it’s possible that the picture was intended for a chantry chapel there, although it seems more likely to have been for private use.