Jean Fouquet’s Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels is one of the most original depictions of the pair in art history. One half of the Melun triptych commissioned by Etienne Chevalier, treasurer to the French monarchs Charles VII and Louis XI, it depicts a serenely sensual Madonna against a background of dramatically hued blue and red cherubim and seraphim.
Although its iconography, particularly the red and blue angels, derives from Northern European painting, the way it was devised and painted reveals knowledge of Flemish and Italian quattrocento art. The exquisite rendering of textures and effect of light, such as the reflection of a window on the polished surface of the two balls on the throne, cannot help but recall Van Eyck.
Fouquet’s construction of space reveals his interest in pure form. The Virgin’s head and breasts, drawn with a compass to produce their astonishing effect, recall Paolo Ucello and Piero della Francesca.
The virgin, dressed in an elegant blue gown unlaced to the waist to reveal one of those milky white breasts, was allegedly modelled on Louis XI’s former mistress, Agnés Sorel, a renowned beauty, which may in part account for the erotic undertones. Attired in the fashion of the day, her cloak and depilated hairline emphasise her eminence.
Although the Koninklijnk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp insists that Fouquet had no erotic intentions, the early 20th century art historian Johan Huizinga saw it as an example of the decadence of the late Middle Ages when religious feelings came close to sensual ones.
‘No instance of this dangerous association of religious with amatory sentiments could be more striking than the Madonna ascribed to Fouquet,’ he intoned. ‘There is a flavour of blasphemous boldness about the whole, unsurpassed by any artist of the Renaissance.’
Huizinnga may have disapproved but the Surrealists adored her, elevating the, ‘fashion doll… with spherical breasts,’ to a world-renowned icon.
Today the painting, on loan to The Rockoxhuis whilst the Koninklijnk Museum undergoes renovation, is considered one of the highlights of the collection.