Discover more from PREVAIL by Greg Olear
Sunday Pages: "Virgin and Child, or, Agnes Sorel as the Virgin"
A painting by Jean Fouquet
At the Elting Library Book Fair a few years back, I bought a couple of old art books: Great Paintings of All Time (Simon & Schuster, 1965), mostly plates of the eponymous paintings with commentaries on each artist by Paul Waldo Schwartz, and A Treasury of Art Masterpieces from the Renaissance to the Present Day (Simon & Schuster, 1939), edited by Thomas Craven, which has ample text accompanying its “161 full-color reproductions, plus 489 black-and-white reproductions.” Sometimes, when the world feels bleak and I remember to do so, I take these volumes off the shelf and flip through the waxen pages.
It never fails to amaze me, first of all, that the painters of the 15th century—over 500 years ago!—were so good, despite making art being difficult and expensive. Like, there is an art supply story two blocks from my house. I could literally walk there, buy canvases and brushes and paints, and be back in my living room in half an hour. (I don’t, but I could.) These O.G. guys had to craft their brushes and mix their paints from scratch, and surfaces on which to paint were in such short supply that they would paint a masterpiece on top of another masterpiece. The other thing that always blows my mind is that photography didn’t exist until the middle of the 19th century—that is when the collective human eye really opened—and the only way we know how historical figures actually looked is to examine portraits of them (on canvases, on mosaics, on coins) and kind of extrapolate. Meanwhile, how many photos exist of, say, Kim Kardashian? There are Millennials and Zoomers whose entire lives have been documented in images, still and moving. And yet there is not a single extant image of the historical Jesus.
The paintings in the books are presented more or less chronologically, so as you flip through, you see the evolution of Western art, in all its clunky glory. Perspectives are out of whack. Hairstyles are awful. Bodies are shaped funny. And then, invariably, something will pop. Looking through the 1965 book for the first time, I immediately stopped on a page where the human image was markedly better than any that came before. I mean, it was so good, it literally gave me a jolt. And then I glanced at the name of the artist: Michelangelo. Well, duh. Even without knowing it was his work, it was clear that guy was above and beyond.
The weirdest early painting I came across was “Virgin and Child,” a trippy effort by a Frenchman named Jean Fouquet. It’s a bizarre piece of art, as unlike the countless chaste Madonnas that preceded it as…well, as Madonna. I mean, look at this thing:
This was produced, somehow, in 1452, four decades before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but looks like an album cover from some 90s Goth band. Here, the Virgin is presented as the Queen of Heaven. Her crown is exquisite, her bejeweled throne festooned with elaborate tapestries. (Fouquet’s Madonna is definitely a Material Girl.) Behind her, creepy cherubs with faces like Johann Sebastian Bach are either entirely red or else members of the Blue Infant Group. On her well-fabric’d lap is perhaps the least Jesus-like Baby Jesus anyone had ever produced. He is well-fed, with fat rolls. His plump baby legs are open, like men sit on airplanes to manufacture more legroom, with his little pecker poking out right at us. There is some color in his cheeks and his feet; otherwise he is pale and ghostly. His left index finger is raised, pointing at something off in the distance (the other panel of the Melun Diptych, probably). He looks, if anything, bored. And he’s ignoring completing the pert, perfectly spherical breast that has just—presumably, although there’s no evidence of it—given him suck. (This is hardly the first painting of Mary breastfeeding Baby Jesus, by the way; there are scores of these, of a subgenre called Virgo Lactans; there are even paintings of the Madonna squirting breast milk into the mouth of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The 15th century was weird.)
Said breast is attached to a Virgin most unvirginlike. Her head is shaved and veiled—the fashion of the day for the rich and stylish—and her features exquisite. The typical Madonna is buried beneath layers and layers of swaddling, removing all traces of her sex and her sexuality. Not so here. She is tall and thin, more like a modern beauty standard than one from the early Renaissance, with slender arms way too long for her body, and a petite, tapered waist. Her dress is low-cut, with the laced bodice familiar to readers of romance novels. And her breasts are as oddly placed as they are oddly shaped. They look for all the world like silicon implants.
What in God’s name is going on here?
As it turns out, this isn’t really a portrait of the Virgin, but of Agnes Sorel (1422-50), legendary beauty, fashion plate, trendsetter, and the mistress of King Charles VII of France, cosplaying as the Madonna. So, decidedly not a virgin. Her sartorial claim to fame was to popularize the low-cut dress—a trend much condemned by the fuddy-duddy Archbishop of Rheims, who complained about “ouvertures de par devant, par lesquelles on voit les tetins, tettes et seing des femmes,” which is French for “showing too much cleavage.” But Agnes was not your usual gumad. As the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica explains:
Her ascendancy dated from the festivals at Nancy in 1444, the first brilliant court of Charles VII. Here her great beauty captivated the king, whose love for her remained constant until her death. He gave her wealth, castles, and lands, and secured for her the state and distinction of a queen. This first public recognition of his mistress by a king of France scandalized all good people and awakened jealousy and intrigue.
Craven, writing 30 years later, is even more blunt:
Agnes Sorel, the acknowledged mistress of the King, completely dominated a ruler who, before he was overcome by her beauty, was noted for his rectitude and chastity. He gave her his castles, his wealth, and his lands, elevated her to the state and position of a queen, and was subservient to her whims in the choice of his counselors.
Charles VII was overcome by more than just beauty. The force of her personality is what gave her her power. Agnes clearly knew how to maximize her ample charms to get what she wanted. What little we know about her suggests that she viewed the relationship in cold, transactional terms; in exchange for sharing the king’s bed and giving him carnal pleasure, she walked away with castles (plural), wealth, and real estate. This makes her arguably the most successful sex worker of all time. She deserves to be immortalized in oils!
As for the artist, whose livelihood depended on the king’s patronage, I defer once again to the curmudgeonly Craven, who has a wonderful way with words:
Fouquet’s conception of the Virgin was as shocking to the people of his time as the King’s overt behavior was offensive to their orthodox notions of royal decorum. The artist, they whispered, was a hireling blasphemer on all counts: he had not only embodied the Madonna in corruptive, mortal flesh; he had also painted her in the image of a sinful charmer, a throne wrecker dressed in the height of fashion and exhibiting, with virginal authority, the provocative charms which had subverted the regime of a tempted sovereign.
But then, the painter’s surname, phonetically pronounced, is “Fuck it.” (Also: How is Thronewrecker not the name of a band?)
But wait, it gets better! As it turns out, Charles VII is a historically significant figure. It was Charles—young, effete, unable to be properly crowned because he’d lost the cathedral cities where coronations historically took place, and on the verge of losing the Hundred Years War—who, in his temporary headquarters at Chinon, met with a teenage prophetess from Domrémy named Jeanne. The English-speaking world knows her as Joan of Arc. She told the Dauphin that God had sent her to help him drive the English out of France. So Charles figured what the hell, and sent this zealous 17 year old to the siege of Orléans. This turned the tide, and on Charles’ watch, France wound up repulsing the Brits and securing victory in that ten-decade war.
The point is, the Royal Dauphin who God ordered Joan of Arc to preserve is the same dude who wound up scandalizing the royal court by openly dating and pampering his sidepiece. (Charles was married to Marie of Anjou, but I guess there were no covenant weddings back then.) The king gave to Agnes the palace where he first met Joan! Thus did the saint secure the crown for the sinners.
Despite enjoying the favor of the king, things didn’t end well for Joan or for Agnes. The former was famously burned at the stake as a heretic after her capture by Burgundian troops; she was 19. The latter died shortly after birthing her fourth child by the king; she was 28, and was probably poisoned. Charles, meanwhile, died at 58, old for the time, after replacing Agnes with one of her cousins. This tragic story shows both the enormous power and the disposability of women—and how mediocre, rich, well-born men exploit talented women and get away with it. The king was a total schmuck, but we’re well acquainted with his type, alas.
And yet, in my deep dive into all of this yesterday, I felt somehow heartened. What we face now we have faced before, I realized, in different but parallel guise. Decades-long holy war over sacred territory two sides who despise each other on religious grounds claim as their God-given land? Been there, done that. Trans individuals doing great things? If Joan of Arc wasn’t trans, she was certainly non-binary. The horrors that can occur when abortion and birth control are not available? A modern-day Agnes Sorel would probably not have had four kids by age 28. Greedy, horny, selfish nepo babies mucking things up for the rest of us? Bonjour, Charles le Bien-Servi. Highly capable women running things behind the scenes for scared, overmatched, useless men in positions of power? Cassidy Hutchinson is the most recent in a very long line. Boundaries crossed by scandalous art? I bring you Jean Fouquet.
There truly is nothing new under the sun. These are universal, timeless aspects of the human experience, whether in 1452 or 1776 or 2023: love, war, faith, art, ambition, greed, cruelty, loneliness, sex, power, sickness, death, grief—and, above all, hope.