A young man seems to be reading a paper covered in elaborate writing. The document is almost certainly a letter, although the places where the name of the recipient would have appeared are concealed.
A lost inscription named the figure as Saint Ivo, patron of lawyers and known as the advocate of the poor, but he lacks many of the saint’s usual features. The painting might be either an image of Saint Ivo made when his iconography was not fully understood or a different subject transformed into the saint when his cult was gaining popularity.
If it is not Saint Ivo, it is hard to suggest an alternative subject. If this is a portrait, it’s a totally unconventional one: fifteenth-century sitters were not shown engaged in activities in this way. It may have been part of a series or a polyptych. The composition, with the sitter looking towards the left, seems to need something to balance it on the right.
A young man with very dark hair and brown eyes seems to be reading a paper covered in elaborate writing. He wears a purplish-grey robe trimmed with brown fur, and the black scarf over his shoulder is attached to his hat, which is hanging down his back. The paper he holds is out of perspective. It has been folded and unfolded, and the writing is a kind of imaginary cursive which is not and never was legible. The document is almost certainly a letter, although the places where the name of the recipient would have appeared are concealed.
The studded wooden shutters on the window behind him have been partly flung back to reveal a delightfully detailed landscape. A stone bridge arches across a river, linking the town on the bank with a walled fortress up on the hill. A large church is reflected in the water and red-roofed houses line the bank. If you look closely you can make out a large rowing boat on the river and tiny figures crossing the bridge, one on horseback. Another man on a white horse rides up the winding road towards the castle, past a row of pollarded trees. A woman in a white veil and a man with a bundle on a stick climb the path running alongside the road. Under the trees to the left a small outdoor party is taking place: a fashionably dressed man and woman and two smaller figures, perhaps children, are being entertained by a musician who seems to be playing the bagpipes.
For many years the main figure was thought to be Saint Ivo, patron saint of lawyers, known as the advocate of the poor. He once had a halo and there used to be an inscription in the upper right hand corner naming him as such, but these were later additions. Saint Ivo was usually shown wearing a lawyer’s robes and holding a scroll, book or paper. He was often accompanied by paupers presenting petition. This picture was painted in the Netherlands in the mid-fifteenth century, when Saint Ivo appears not to have been especially widely venerated there. He became better known from the end of the sixteenth century when his relics were brought to Antwerp. The painting might be either an image of the saint made when his iconography was not fully understood or a different subject transformed into the saint when his cult was gaining popularity.
If this is not Saint Ivo, it’s difficult to propose an alternative. The letter should but does not help solve the problem; the incidents in the background are mysterious and not necessarily related to each other or to the main figure. If this is a portrait, it is a totally unconventional one as fifteenth-century sitters were not shown engaged in activities in this way. It is clearly not a fragment of a larger painting – the bare strip of wood around the edge was covered by the original frame – but may have been part of a series or a polyptych. The composition, with the sitter looking towards the left, seems to need something to balance it on the right.
Although it is very much in the style of Rogier van der Weyden, the painting is the work of someone who was a less skilled draughtsman. There are various anomalies in the way it is painted: the eyes are at uneven heights, the hands are awkward and oddly boneless, and the folded paper is out of shape. It is the work of an imitator, or perhaps an assistant, and has points in common with the Triptych of Saint John the Baptist (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), which was also probably by an associate.
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