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We don‘t know the identity of the young man in this small painting, but he is clearly a person of wealth and taste. He wears a bright red robe trimmed with fur, and at his waist is a black bag with a ’notebook' of wax tablets inside. He holds a small but luxurious manuscript, probably a Book of Hours (a devotional book) or prayer book.
He is perhaps an Italian merchant – Christus often worked for Italian patrons and the painting was in an Italian collection in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century. The tablets in his bag show that he often had to make notes, as a merchant would.
On the wall behind him is a piece of parchment with a prayer in Latin, and a picture of a miraculous image of Christ. Perhaps the young man is reciting the prayer in his book and was originally looking across at another image, now lost.
A young man stands in the corner of a vaulted room. He wears a bright red houpelande, a long-sleeved over-garment worn in the later Middle Ages. It is belted at the waist and trimmed with brown fur at neck and cuffs. It seems to be made of wool, perhaps the famous – and expensive – Flemish ’scarlet‘ cloth. A black chaperon, a fifteenth-century male headdress, hangs down his back; its cornette, a scarf-like attachment, comes down over his shoulder. His hair has been shaved at both temples and the back of his neck, as was fashionable for a smart young man in the 1450s.
He wears a gold signet ring, and holds a small but luxurious book with gilded fore-edges and a tasselled chemise binding, probably a Book of Hours or prayer book. At his waist is a small bag with metal fittings, attached to his belt. This kind of girdle purse was a fashionable, expensive item. If you look inside it, you can see what seems to be a small book closed by a silver clasp. This is a ’notebook' of wax tablets with a metal stylus tucked into the clasp.
This is more than a simple portrait, however: the room itself is intriguing. Through the window we can see a landscape with trees, roofs and a castle in the distance. A small white mark is, on closer inspection, the back of a horse. The other window is decorated with statues in niches, one of which is missing. The surviving figures seem to be a bearded and barefoot John the Baptist on the right, a sibyl or prophetess in a long gown and a turban at the bottom, and a prophet. The latter two hold scrolls, symbols of pre-Christian authors in Renaissance art. Through the window we can see a balcony made of inlaid stone, topped with a lion resting his foot on a shield.
It is not clear precisely what these figures mean, or what kind of a space the man is standing in. Is it a house, a castle or a church? And what is the young man doing – is he meant to be a donor? Donors usually knelt in Netherlandish art, as in Rogier van der Weyden’s Pietà, but this man seems to be standing. He does not pray, but holds a devotional book, as in Portrait of a Young Man.
The text nailed to the wall might shed some light on the mystery. A piece of parchment has been pinned to an arched board; we can see the light reflecting off the pins, the shadows around them and a loose corner curling up. On it is a prayer in Latin and a picture of a miraculous image of Christ known as the Holy Face. Prayers to the Holy Face were popular in the mid-fifteenth century: people believed that reciting these allowed them to reduce the time they spent in purgatory after death. The young man himself is perhaps an Italian merchant. Christus often worked for Italian patrons and the painting was in an Italian collection in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century. The tablets in the man’s bag show that he often had to make notes, as a merchant would.
The panel was possibly the left wing of a folding diptych or triptych. There are now no sign of hinges but these would have been attached to the original frame, which has been lost. It would have covered the strip around the edge which is now partly gilded (the gold is a later addition). Perhaps the man is reciting the prayer in his book and was originally looking across at another image, now lost.
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