The Virgin Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, embrace at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem. Long childless, they had been told by an angel that they would have a daughter. On the right is Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor and King of the Franks.
This was the left side of a large altarpiece; the right side was an Annunciation (Art Institute of Chicago). The central section, now lost, would have been about 48 to 50 cm wide and the whole painting about 160 cm wide. We aren't sure what was shown in the central section – perhaps Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to read in front of a red and gold cloth of honour, the edge of which you can see over the battlements at the right.
The altarpiece was possibly painted for Anne de Beaujeu, Duchess of Bourbon. The Bourbons were especially interested in Mary’s conception and had set up an altar to it in the church at Moulins, their hometown, in the 1470s; this altarpiece might have been intended for this location.
The Virgin Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, embrace at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem. According to the Golden Legend, the couple had been childless for 20 years when an angel told each separately that they would have a daughter called Mary. They met at the Golden Gate and Anne conceived, an event sometimes known as the Immaculate Conception.
On the right is Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor and King of the Franks, who died in 814. He wears an imperial crown, holds an orb and has the arms of the Empire and France on his surcoat (tunic). He looks out of the painting to our right, and gestures with his left arm (which is now partly missing).
This picture was the left side of a large altarpiece by Jean Hey, the right side of which was an Annunciation (Art Institute of Chicago). The altarpiece consisted of one oblong panel of four horizontal boards. The central section, now lost, would have been about 48 to 50 cm wide and the whole painting about 160cm wide. Part of a standing figure on the left of the Annunciation has been scraped out and overpainted, so that the work could pass as a complete picture. It was probably Saint Louis, King of France from 1226 to 1270. We are not sure what was shown in the central section, which was probably taller. It may well have been Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to read in front of a red and gold cloth of honour – you can see the edge of this over the battlements at the right.
The presence of Charlemagne, the possible inclusion of Saint Louis and the prominence accorded to Saint Anne suggest that the patron may have been Anne de Beaujeu, wife of Pierre II, Duke of Bourbon. The Bourbons were especially interested in Mary’s conception, and Anne de Beaujeu was especially devoted to Saint Anne, her patron saint; she was herself an older mother who took a long time to conceive a child (she was married in 1473 and did not give birth until 1491).
The Bourbons had set up an altar to the Immaculate Conception in the Collegiate Church of Our Lady at Moulins, their home town, in the 1470s. This altarpiece might have been intended for it, and it was perhaps commissioned in gratitude for the birth of their one surviving child, Suzanne, in May 1491. They also had large statues of their patron saints – including Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to read (now in the Louvre, Paris) – made for their family chapel in around 1500, which were perhaps designed by the artist of this altarpiece.
Technical analysis shows a great deal of underdrawing and many changes. It marks the approximate positions of the main parts of the composition, which were often varied several times and then painted in slightly different places. Some things were sketched in but not included in the final version, and poses and the draperies were all changed several times as the artist tried to get the effect he wanted. He even seems to have done a preliminary painted version in brown and red tones. Tiny fragments of the original frame are still clinging to the left side of the panel in our collection; perhaps whoever removed the frame found it difficult to get off.
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