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Virgo Lactans

Mary and Jesus with Seraphim and Cherubim, of the Chevalier Diptych

Jean Fouquet (ca. 1420-1481). Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten - Antwerp.

The Chevalier Diptych:

Mary and Jesus with Seraphim and Cherubim
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten - Antwerp.
Etienne Chevalier and Saint Stephen
Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Gemäldegalerie - Berlin. Around 1453-1456

Charles VII, King of France

Jean Fouquet. Musée du Louvre – Paris. Around 1445- 1453.

Guillaume Jouvenel des Ursins

Jean Fouquet. Musée du Louvre – Paris. Around 1465.

The Virgin

Jean Fouquet’s painting of Mary and Jesus with Seraphim and Cherubim is a painting with many layers of meaning. It forms a diptych with the panel of Etienne Chevalier and Saint Stephen. It presents to the viewer a dual face of real image and hidden messages.

The real image is what one sees: a portrait of a Madonna caring for her baby, both standing and seating on a throne gently supported by angels. This picture however fades rapidly away at the strangeness of the image and the colours. The Madonna is a lascivious lady with a very narrow waist and huge breasts, of which one is bare and provocatively thrusted forward. Jesus is entirely nude, which is maybe a surprise compared to older paintings, but already quite common in Fouquet’s age. Jesus does not seem a baby anymore. He holds a finger outstretched as if to tell us: beware! The angels are painted as innocent children. However, they are not painted in the fleshy, rosy colours of children but in deep blue and brick red, which makes us all the more uneasy. The colour of the Madonna’s face and of Jesus’s flesh is also unnaturally white, the other colours being almost monochrome blues and reds.

The painting of Mary and Jesus is thus very unconventional both by the imagery and by the colours. Mary is the Madonna, but shown as an alluring lady. Jesus is not shown as we would expect. He is too old for a baby, and he tells us to take care. He sits with a straight back – although supported so by the arm of Mary. The colours of the Seraphim and Cherubim form also an unexpected background. We know nothing similar in French and Italian painting of those times and even if painted in our times this would be a surprising painting, shockingly unconventional.

Let us look more closely at the strange blue and red angels.

Seraphim and Cherubim

Seraphim are winged spirits. There are two mentions of the Seraphim in the Bible. The prophet Isaiah saw them with six wings: two to cover their faces, two to cover their legs and two to fly. They accompanied God and cried his glory. Isaiah was struck with fear at the scene so that he confessed being a man with impure lips. Being impure and having seen God, he thought he was lost. Whereupon one Seraph took up a burning coal, touched Isaiah’s lips and told him his impurity was redeemed. Another mention is in the ‘Book of Numbers’. Here they are called burning serpents, sent by God to punish the Israelites who lost patience with Moses when the Promised Land was not found rapidly enough. The Israelites were bitten by the serpents and died. Moses prayed to God and God told Moses to sculpt a bronze serpent and mount that on a standard. Everyone who was bitten by a serpent had only to look at the bronze serpent, and would not die. The image of the bronze Seraph serpent comes back frequently in the iconography of European paintings. Michelangelo used it for instance for a scene of the Sistine chapel. Seraphim are usually painted in blue. They are serpents representing skies and clouds. But as six-winged guardians of God they certainly do not inspire calm.

The Cherubim are even fiercer. They also are mentioned twice in the Bible. First in Exodus. Moses was told by Jahwe to build the arch. For God, he had to build a dais and throne. At the extremities of the dais Moses had to sculpt with the hammer two gold Cherubim with wings extended to the heavens. The Cherubim were to serve as guardians of the throne. The word Cherubim was known already in Babylon, where the Cherubim were half human and half animal creatures that guarded temples and palaces. The other mention of Cherubim is in the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel saw God who revealed the prophecies from out of a fiery cloud, out of which came bolts of lightning. In the centre of the cloud were four Cherubim. Each Cherub had a human form, but with four heads and four wings, their feet were ox claws. A Cherub had the head of a lion to the right, the head of a bull to the left, a man’s head and an eagle’s head. Their wings were also extended above, two wings touched and two wings covered their body. They walked forward to where the spirit led them; they did not turn around. The Cherubim represented here also the old Babylonian creatures, with lion figures, human heads, bulls’ feet and eagle wings that guarded the temples. In the image of Ezekiel these Cherubim drew the chariot of God as a symbol of the transcendence of God above the old idols. The four heads of the Cherubim were used later on as symbols of the four Evangelists who wrote the Gospels, whereby the human head corresponded to Matthew, the lion to Mark, the bull to Luke and the eagle to John. The Cherubim were also as in Ezekiel associated to lightning and fire, so they were painted red in medieval representations.

Seraphim and Cherubim were transformed in Christian medieval iconography to winged angels, and primarily so by Jean Fouquet. In Fouquet’s painting the Seraphim are blue as the skies, the Cherubim red as fire and they support the throne. Their wings are stretched upwards, as is mentioned in the Bible. But they are not the fiery serpents or half-human, half-animal creatures of the Bible. They are proposed as children angels. The symbols of Seraphim and Cherubim are a rather rare representation, and that certainly in northern paintings.

We have to go to Venice and Florence of the fifteenth century to find frequent examples of the red and blue angels, separated on two sides of religious scenes. They are used for instance in a picture of the first half of the century painted by Michele Giambono (active from about 1420 to 1460), in a ‘Coronation of the virgin’, now in the Galleria dell’Accademia, and in another ‘Coronation of the Virgin’ scene of the same beginning of the fifteenth century, now in the same museum of Venice, made by Jacobello del Fiore and his assistants. The symbols may be of Byzantine origin. John Gage wrote on these angels, ‘An essay on the red and blue angels in a mosaic panel in San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna has shown brilliantly that the red figure, who is on the side of the sheep, represents the fiery nature of the good angels, and the blue, on the side of the goats, the dark angel of evil, whose element is the air (E. Kirchbaum 1940, ‘L’Angelo Rosso e l’Angelo purchino’ in Revista di Archaeologia Christiana, XVII)’. Masolino (Tommaso di Cristoforo Fini), the Florentine painter that was one of the first to introduce Renaissance features in his paintings, used blue and red angels in his picture of from 1435 tot 1440 of the Madonna, a ‘Virgin and Child’ now in the Alte Pinakothek of Munich. The use of blue and red angels is even clearer in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s altarpiece of Santa Maria Novella of Florence, now equally in the Alte Pinakothek of Munich, dating from around 1494.

Jean Fouquet was a very intelligent painter, who lived in a period when studies of the Gospels were very intensive. He knew very well his Bible. So, we find here a first double meaning. Children angels are what we see. Angels that are sweet and gentle, that surround the throne respectfully and support it, as Seraphim and Cherubim should. On the other hand, we know that these are fierce creatures used by a revengeful God to inspire fear and dominance over ancient idols. Multiple layers in the painting: one apparent, the other layers of meanings in the mind.

Virgo Lactans

By tradition, Fouquet’s Mary is supposed to be Agnes Sorel, the favourite of King Charles VII of France. In France, one prefers to call these ladies ‘favourites’ rather than mistresses. The deliberate representation of the Madonna as the portrait of Agnes Sorel is a rare prophanisation of a sacred theme, which would in other times be considered an outright blasphemy. It might still have been on the edge of blasphemy even when Fouquet painted it. Fouquet was courageous to do so, but knew that this was accepted in his time and that he would not be blamed. Otherwise he would not have dared to present such an image to one of the most powerful men in France.

The Virgin has a breast bared to give her milk to the baby, to suckle Jesus. The ‘Virgo Lactans’ is a very old theme, though. It appears in old miniatures like the Amesbury psalter of the middle of the thirteenth century. The earliest examples in mosaics or frescoes date from the very beginning of our era. The Virgin may be suckling the infant Christ as in a Masolino (1387-1447) painting now in the Uffizi of Florence. Or the child may be sitting on the Virgin’s lap with the Virgin having one breast uncovered as in Fouquet’s painting. The theme disappeared from art after the Council of Trent (1545-1563), that forbade undue nudity in the portrayal of sacred figures G41 .

Jean Fouquet

Jean Fouquet was the most renowned miniaturist, then the most famous painter of France in the fifteenth century. The fifteenth and earlier centuries did not produce many painters in France; Fouquet is a rare appearance. He lived from around 1420 in Tours on the Loire river, maybe as early as 1415, to around 1480, maybe even 1490. In the fifteenth century Tours was an important town for the French Kings. They resided there frequently. Fouquet worked for Charles VII and his successor Louis XI. He became the official painter of the court of Louis XI only in 1475. But he worked at the court of the Kings of France and knew the people that frequented the King. He also worked for Etienne Chevalier, the man on the diptych. We know that Fouquet was in Rome around 1445, must have seen Italian Renaissance paintings there, and arrived back at the court at the end of the 1440’s. Few of his own paintings have survived the ages however. He was first and foremost a miniaturist. Many of his books still exist: he illuminated the ‘Statutes of the Order of Saint Michael’, ‘Boccacio’s Tales’, ‘Les Grandes Chroniques’, and Flavius Josephus’ ‘Judaic Antiquities’. He also painted prayerbooks for Philippe de Comines who was an ambassador of France in Venice and a historian, and he worked also on prayerbooks for the same Etienne Chevalier shown on the diptych. Jean Fouquet knew Agnes Sorel well.

Agnes Sorel

Agnes Sorel was born around 1420 in the village of Fromenteau, near the town of Loches, also of the Tours region. She was the daughter of a poor nobleman of Picardie, the lord Jean Soreau of Coudun, so she originated from a family of northern France. Her father, Jean Soreau, was a Squire, lord of Coudun and Saint-Gérant. He was the advisor and servant of the Count of Clermont. Her mother was Cathérine de Maignelais who had been lady of the castle of Verneuil G44 . Agnes Sorel was an orphan very young. She was first raised by her aunt and inherited Fromenteau from her parents so that she was called the ‘Demoiselle de Fromenteau’. She became Lady of Honour to the Duchess of Anjou, Isabelle de Lorraine, and thus attended at the court of the King of France. She arrived at the court in 1443 and remained there until her death in 1450. She rapidly became the favourite of Charles VII. She gave birth to 4 daughters of the King. Charles VII gave her castles, among which the castle of Beauté on the Marne river and at the end of the Parc de Vincennes near Paris, so that she was called ‘La Dame de Beauté’ or the Lady of Beauty. She would also be the Lady of Roqueferrière, of Issoudun and of Vernon-on-Seine. She was the first officially recognised mistress of a King of France. When Agnes Sorel supplanted the Queen, the latter, Mary of Anjou, was pregnant of her thirteenth child; she would have fourteen in all.

Agnes Sorel was tolerated by the Queen and despised by Charles’ son, the Dauphin. The Dauphin would be the future King Louis XI. Louis XI wanted power and he wanted it rapidly. Agnes Sorel more than once stood in his way to influence his father. Struggles were continuous. Louis was at one time even banned to this province the Dauphiné (whence the word Dauphin for the successor to the kings) for having insulted Agnes and having taken part in a plot against the King.

The Lady of Beauty died quite young and suddenly in February of 1450. Charles VII was then attacking the English at the port of Harfleur in Normandy with an army of fifteen thousand men. The King liked the most important abbey of Normandy, Jumièges, which was close by and where the monks had a mansion that was reserved for royal visitors who came to hunt in the magnificent woods of the Seine meanders or who wanted to find the spiritual stillness of the abbey. Agnes Sorel had followed Charles on his new campaign against the English. But the mistress, because of her relations to the King, could not stay in the abbey too. She resided in a small castle of the nearby village of Le Mesnil, a castle since disappeared, that was called Le Manoir. In the evening she could join Charles in Jumièges. She died in this Manoir of Le Mesnil near Jumièges in Normandy. She died shortly after giving birth to her last child, probably of lack of hygiene at birth. But there were allegations that she was poisoned at Louis XI’s instigation.

King Charles VII

Agnes Sorel had a large influence on Charles VII. This King has always been described as a very weak sovereign, who preferred to play with his mistresses in his castles, far from the battles and wars that were going on. This is certainly how also George Bernard Shaw described him in his play ‘Saint Joan’.

Yet, Charles VII has been one of the most important Kings in the history of France. He started with a kingdom reduced to not much more than a province in the southwest of today’s France, under the river Loire. He was born and lived totally in the period of the bloody Hundred-Year War between the Kings of France and the Kings of England for the supremacy in France. The Dukes of Burgundy, at first allies of the Kings of France since vassals and of the royal French Valois family, had sided with England. When he became King, in 1422, Charles VII did not even possess Paris. The town had been taken by the Duke of Burgundy in 1418 and was later occupied by the English. He could not be crowned in Reims because the English Duke of Bedford, Governor of the English possessions in France, had likewise occupied the town.

However, when Charles VII died in 1462, he had a real Kingdom. The English were beaten and almost completely thrown back over the Channel. The only noble that could still withstand Charles in France was the Duke of Burgundy. Charles VII had for the first time in the Middle Ages a standing royal army, paid for by all his people. He did not have to rely anymore on his feudal nobles and thus could beat each in his turn to end feudalism in France. His accomplishments were great; many battles against the English were won. And yet, yes, he is known throughout history as a weakling. But a King that accomplished such great feats cannot have been weak. Indecisive maybe and opportunist certainly, but he also surrounded himself with intelligent and strong men. He had the best men in France, excellent counsellors and heroic war commanders. He had Jacques Coeur as Financier and Banker. Etienne Chevalier was his Finance Controller or ‘Trésorier du Roi’, Treasurer and Private Secretary. He had Dunois, the Bastard of Orléans. Dunois was the bastard son of Charles’ uncle Louis, the brother of Charles VI, and the Lady of Cany. This Louis had been killed on the orders of the Duke of Burgundy in a rage of jealousy. The Duke thought that his wife also had favoured Louis. Other advisors and generals were Etienne Vignolles called La Hire, Jean Poton de Xaintrailles, Jean Rieux, his Sénéchal Pierre de Brézé, Jean de Bueil Count of Sancerre, his Chancellor Guillaume Jouvenel des Ursins and many more very able war generals who always excelled as heroic commanders. The English had won wars in the beginning due to their archers with their rapid firing power. Charles’ advisers Jean and Gaspard Bureau were two brothers who developed his canon artillery that would defeat the EnglishG36.

Charles wanted to show a court of France more splendid than the court of the rich Dukes of Burgundy. He needed that to establish the authority of the Kingdom of France over any other Count or Duke. Thus, splendid feasts were organised in which the court of France even indulged at times when its cash was low – which was almost always. At one time, when everything in the war seemed lost, but Charles was not wanting to postpone a feast instead of taking immediate actions, La Hire exclaimed that if Charles knew something, it was certainly how to lose a Kingdom in the most agreeable way.

Agnes Sorel loved feasts. Her beauty reigned at the tournaments, at the royal travels and court gatherings. She introduced new fashions to capture the interest of her royal lover. She invented the high cone headdress from which hung light veils; she wore audacious décolletés that gave all credence to her magnificent breasts and slim waist. At the King’s court reigned Agnes Sorel, not the Queen.

And so is she shown on Jean Fouquet’s painting, made after her death. Agnes has a very pale complexion, slim waist; her open breast may refer to the low décolletés she wore, which went in a deep triangle to show the curves. Her hair was blond and plucked at the front, as was the fashion so that she has a high, very white front. She had bright blue eyes. Pale beauties, blondes with blue eyes are an exception in France so she must have made a stunning appearance indeed, as in Fouquet’s painting. She stands proudly erect in the painting, in a blue dress of the same colour as her eyes. This is not he traditional dark blue of the Madonna’s maphorion cloak, but a royal bright blue that contrasts magnificently with her paleness and the paleness of the baby. She is presented as a real Queen, with a hermine royal cloak thrown on her bare shoulders. So also testify the throne, the crown and the pearls all around.

The many pearls in the Madonna’s crown may only be the sign of the royal wealth. But pearls also had symbolic value in the Late Middle Ages and are often associated with the Virgin Mary. The pearl is the word ‘gratia’ and also Mary’s own grace G81 . Pearls grow inside seashells, from the dew of heaven, without any pollution of sexual reproduction. The Virgin Mary was such a shell and her child Jesus the pearl.

Agnes Sorel’s royal lover was Charles VII of France. Jean Fouquet’s painting of Charles VII that is in the Paris Louvre Museum shows him indeed with a weak face, but at the same time as a very complex personality. Charles is dressed in heavy red velvet. Fouquet preferred this kind of dress for his paintings: Charles VII, Etienne Chevalier and Guillaume Jouvenel des Ursins - who was Chancellor of France - in another portrait to be found in the Louvre, are all dressed likewise in this heavy red garment. Charles’ and Guillaume’s sleeves and collar are lined with furs in exactly the same way. Charles is seen praying, probably knelt and leaning on the cushion of a praying-chair. The dark red dress of which the folds are meticulously painted contrasts very painfully with the dark green background and the equally dark blue headdress. These colours are indeed menacing. The red folds of Charles’ breast are very straight, giving an impression of an uncompromising man, of inflexibility. Out of the massive dark red, green, blue appears the small face of the King. He shows a somewhat effeminate slim face with little hidden ears, a flabby somewhat ridiculous bulging nose, a full-lipped sensual mouth. He looks at something far away, does not seem to be present, and does not look at the viewer. And he seems lost and sad at the same time, as if he were angry for somehow not being in control but anyhow wanting it. He also looks arrogant. It is a very realistic painting. Fouquet has made much more here than a mere portrait. He has shown Charles’ character by a very unconventional use of colours. The rest is done by Charles’ face itself. The painting was made at the occasion of a victory. It may date from 1444, date of the Trève de Tours, or from 1453, the date of the reconquest of the Guyenne by Charles.

Women helped Charles VII upright. Charles’ father had been a demented man; his mother, Isabeau de Bavière, was an adulteress G36 . Charles was betrothed as a child of ten years to Marie d’Anjou. The mother Marie, Yolande d’Aragon, Queen of Sicily and Duchess of Anjou, brought up both the children. Yolande d’Aragon was the first firm woman in Charles’ life who surrounded him with good councillors. There was Agnes Sorel, who gave him steadfastness and strong support. She had an influence of stability and forcefulness. History has liked Agnes Sorel. She had a positive influence on the King. There was the Queen, Mary of Anjou, who gave him many children and two sons. And then there was Joan of Arc who came from Dompremy to his court, pleaded personally with the King for confidence. Maybe Charles’ greatest accomplishment was to have listened to Joan of Arc when she came to him as a poor peasant girl, and having given her his armies. She turned the war to his advantage by her energy, her unwavering belief in being sent by God and being invincible, to liberate France from its enemies and crown the King of France in Reims. From Joan of Arc’s short appearance on, after the relieve of the city of Orléans, the French armies did not lose anymore. She succeeded. The French soldiers did not believe even anymore that they could lose, they were on the right side. God himself had intervened.

So, a seemingly weak King supported by women. Exactly the image of Jean Fouquet’s painting: a baby on a throne cared for by a woman. The second layer of the painting.

Etienne Chevalier

Etienne Chevalier, the man depicted on the other panel of the diptych, handled the will of Sorel when she died. Etienne Chevalier was the Treasurer of France and Secretary of the King, after a rapid career at the court. He originated from the French town of Melun. The Chevalier diptych of Jean Fouquet remained for a long time in the cathedral Notre Dame of Melun. It hung in the chapel of Chevalier’s tomb.

Etienne Chevalier is portrayed together with Saint Stephen. Chevalier’s first name, Etienne, is French for Stephen. It was a habit from medieval times to the fifteenth century to be portrayed supported by one’s patron, just as in this panel. Chevalier is shown with an energetic head, an intelligent glance, and a sharp and alert face. This is not a man that indulges in too much food and drink. He has a ferret-like directness of gaze, with a mouth drawn into a straight, pitiless line. A face like a modern French captain of industry. Chevalier certainly knew what he wanted, must have pursued it relentlessly and ruthlessly. He wears a magnificent uni-coloured robe, simple, without ornaments, as suits the Treasurer of France and also a human shown together with a saint on the same panel. Chevalier was a man in whom one could have confidence that he would not spill France’s money on trifles.

Chevalier’s patron Saint Stephen is more splendidly dressed, but in the same austere style. Stephen also has an intelligent look, severe and strict. He is shown as a monk and his face expresses strict morals, emphasised by the austere haircut. This is a saint who finds great stability and certainty in his faith. He holds his arm on Etienne Chevalier, who is therefore supported in his task in France. Stephen tells: Etienne is a man of substance, one to be relied upon. Chevalier is protected by higher objectives than the ones given on earth. He is painted somewhat lower than Saint Stephen, as is appropriate. The background seems to be a Renaissance villa or church, walls all in marble as so much used in Italy and Rome, with the begin and end of the Estienne Chevalier name engraved on the columns. Etienne Chevalier, born in 1413, was the Royal Secretary, the Finance Controller and then Treasurer of France. Chevalier is connected to all the characters of our painting.

Saint Stephen is a very early saint and martyr E5 . He was appointed by the apostles as one of the seven deacons to look after the distribution of alms to the faithful and to help in the preaching. In Jean Fouquet’s painting he wears the deacon’s cope. Stephen seems to have defended especially the words of Christ: my Kingdom is not of this world. Stephen preached that the Judaic temple of Solomon was only a temporary institution superseded by Jesus the Messiah. Stephen attacked his audience for resisting this idea. Thereupon he was stoned to martyrdom by a Jewish crowd for blasphemy. Saint Stephen was known as the patron of the deacons of the church, and invoked for curing headaches. He is shown in Jean Fouquet’s painting with the Bible, whose message he defended so much, and with a stone with sharp edges, reminiscent of his martyrdom. But the stone has a cone shape, the form of a Pope’s tiara, the symbol of the church. The stone rests on the book just as the church rests on the Bible.

Jacques Coeur

Another man was closely connected to King Charles VII, Etienne Chevalier and Agnes Sorel: Jacques Coeur. Jacques Coeur was one of the most extraordinary men of France’s fifteenth century.

Jacques Coeur was a rich merchant who traded mainly out of Montpellier, the old merchant, banking and university town in the south of France that lay on the crossroad with rich Castile and maritime Aragon and the Moors that were still in South Spain, in Granada, in the fifteenth century. Montpellier was the largest town that lay close to one of the rare southern ports of France: Lattès G35 . France in the fifteenth century had only about hundred fifty kilometres of access to the Mediterranean and it had few ports. Jacques Coeur was a wealthy man from dealing in all the sorts of trades that could be imagined in the fifteenth century, not least from dealing in arms with the Egyptian Mohammedans. He was an extraordinary man, one of the first industrialists and capitalists, a man with a universal view, a banker, a ship-owner, and a merchant. He had seven ships in the Mediterranean G35 . He dealt in wheat, in wool, in salt and in silk. He was a member of the Silk Makers’ Guild, the ‘Arte della Seta’, in Florence and he founded a silk manufactory in Lyon. He owned a wealth in real estate. Jacques Coeur’s life was one long adventure. He was a small merchant of Bourges, now a lesser town of France. But Bourges had been the place where Charles VII had held court in his first years as King.

Jacques Coeur had made a voyage in the Mediterranean in 1432 G36 . He had visited Alexandria in Egypt, Beyrouth and Damascus, Cyprus and Sicily. The voyage had opened his eyes to the possibilities of trade in the Mediterranean. When he came back after a shipwreck in Corsica, he found the investors in Bourges to build his trading empire. In less than ten years Coeur was the wealthiest man of France.

Charles VII called Jacques Coeur to court. In 1436 Coeur was appointed Steward of the Royal Expenditures or ‘Argentier de l’Hôtel du Roi’ and of course he was the Banker of the Court. Agnes Sorel needed Jacques Coeur for her grand feasts. Jacques Coeur, Etienne Chevalier, and Pierre de Brézé - who would become the head of the government - were close friends of each other and of Agnes Sorel. Coeur must have liked the feasts: he was the one who as Argentier had to pay out of the King’s purse for the expenditures, and he could deliver the goods at benefits decided by himself aloneG36. He was buyer and seller at the same time. He was a ruthless, unscrupulous businessman. He was always a good patriot of France and the King. But Jacques Coeur certainly confounded his own interests with the interests of his function as Argentier G35 .

Jacques Coeur was one of the foremost men of the King who together with the Marshal Mottier de La Fayette advised Charles VII to introduce a set of laws to reorganise the feudal state of the country. Charles called together representatives of the three States – noblemen, clergy and wealthy merchants – at Orleans in 1439. Charles had the States decide to levy a permanent tax in the whole of France, the ‘taille perpétuelle’. The tax would serve to finance the war.

This fact alone would end feudalism in France. And it was a kind measure: from now one there would be a standing King’s army in France, continuously paid. There would be no more calling together of serfs and knights with their little bands that constituted earlier armies. It made the King independent of the nobles and the feudal system. There would be no more mercenaries paid by ad-hoc tax levies, whereby the mercenaries after a battle would roam the Country, pillaging it as the outlaws they were, waiting for a next battle and next payment. These bands were the scourge of France and one of the prime factors that made the Hundred-Year War so terrible for the country. It not only made France more peaceful, which added to the sympathy for the King, but also enabled the King to subdue the nobles. From now on he could handle the separate armies of the country’s nobility and subdue them one by one. It allowed later Louis XI to do away even with the Dukes of Burgundy.

Some nobles of Charles’ court, fearing these measures as well as the growing influence of traders and intelligent men who did not belong to the old aristocracy, plotted against the King G36 . The lord La Trémoille, the Duke of Bourbon, the Duke of Brittany, and the Duke of Alençon, to some extent with the support of the Dauphin, rose against the King. But Richemont, Dunois, Pierre de Brézé, Xaintrailles, the Count of Richemont and others, beat the conspirators. The Dauphin was sent in exile from court to the Dauphiné. Part of the measures had to wait 1445 and a new gathering in Châlons-sur-Marne before they were fully executable, but they were in the end applied. Thus, medieval times ended for France. Germany that had not had a Jacques Coeur and other Royal civil advisers such as Etienne Chevalier and de La Fayette, would have to wait for a Bismarck and the nineteenth century to reach similar status. In Germany there was no king and the emperors were elected by the grace of the feudal Prince Electors.

However, a man as adventurous, dashing and powerful as Jacques Coeur naturally made enemies. He grew more and more wealthy. He traded with Italy, organised trading houses in other countries, as for instance in Bruges, that other centre of European commerce. He traded with Scotland. He had a palace in his hometown of Bourges, which is still today the pride of the city. He was ennobled in 1441. He obtained the Archbishopric of Bourges for his son Jean. He gained the Bishopric of Luçon for his brother. His son Arvand worked for him in Florence. Jacques Coeur continued with his arms dealing in the Orient. He owned silver and metal mines near Lyon. He was a powerful man, ennobled, appointed Royal Commissar to the States of Languedoc and the Auvergne which meant he had to discuss with these counties he amount of the yearly taxes to the King. He became the Visitor-General of the ‘Gabelles’, the riverboats that transported goods and especially salt in France. He was sent on diplomatic missions to Genoa and to Rome. He was very rich. He was certainly a source of intrigues at the court.

Lately, Jacques Coeur had given prominence for his Mediterranean trade to the port of Marseille G36 . But Marseille was not French. Marseille was a port of the Provence where reigned the Good King René. So, taxes on trade also went to King René instead of to Charles VII. Trade in Montpellier was hurt. The businessmen of Montpellier, especially one Otto Castellani, started to scheme against Coeur. Jacques Coeur also had entertained good relations with the Dauphin of France, Charles VII’s son and future Louis XI as well as with the Popes in Rome and the great King Alphonso of Aragon. All these relations became increasingly suspicious for Charles VII.

When Agnes Sorel died, Jacques Coeur was falsely accused by Jeanne de Vendôme, the Lady of Mortagne, of having poisoned Agnes Sorel on behalf of the Dauphin. Coeur was arrested in 1451. The accusation of having poisoned Agnes Sorel was soon abandoned because the doctor of the King and of Agnes and a friend of Coeur, Robert Poitevin, testified at court of what real illness Sorel had truly died. Jeanne de Vendôme was banned from the kingdom. But the accusation was enough to imprison Jacques Coeur in the castle of Taillebourg and other accusations then could be amassed against him. Coeur had lost the confidence of Charles VII. Charles feared or was jealous of Coeur’s good relations with the Dauphin, and of his other relations with the Pope, with the King of Aragon, with the Doge of Venice and with Genoa. Coeur had only wanted to serve everybody in the hope of being granted new privileges and in the hope of getting richer. By serving everybody he had become his own man instead of just the French King’s man. And of course: the King wanted Coeur’s immense fortune G36 .

More than twenty accusers assembled against Jacques Coeur. They were led by Otto Castellani, the trader from Montpellier and who was of Florentine descent, and by the courtier Guillaume Gouffier. Charles VII in the meantime had already another mistress, one Antoinette de Maignelay, a cousin of Agnes Sorel, whom he married out to his First Chamberlain André de Villequier. These were intimate with Guillaume Gouffier G36 . They were also in debt to Jacques Coeur, as were Jeanne de Vendôme and her husband. It turned out after the trial that about 57 percent of all the money owed to Coeur, were owed to him by people from the Royal Court. Of his 238 debtors, more than 30 percent came from the court G35 . Fourteen accusations were made to Coeur. He had minted coins at diminished weight. He had delivered arms and metals to the Saracens, sold own coins with the figure of France’s lily, and exported money to other countries. He had sent back a young Christian in slavery to Egypt; he had profited from his double function of banker of the King and banker of the Treasury of France, and so on. Coeur answered to all the accusations. But it did not help him that for instance he repeated - as everybody knew - that he had personal permissions of the Pope to deal with the Infidel and that he had started this trade in Montpellier, a town that had benefited from the same Papal privileges for six ships a year.

Jacques Coeur was condemned for lese-majesty in May of 1453. All his goods in France were confiscated and he would be forever banned from France. But the General Prosecutor of the King, Jean Dauvet, would need four years to make the complete inventory of all the possessions and trading interests of Jacques Coeur G35 . Dauvet’s journal of his search in the many cities where Coeur had had properties and companies amounted to more than one thousand large folio pages.

Jacques Coeur escaped in 1454 from his prison, the castle of Poitiers. He fled from convent to convent to arrive at Beaucaire where a group of his best friends and sea captains took him in their armed protection to guide him to Italy. Pope Calixtus III gave him a mission to fight the Turks; Coeur helped to organise the ninth crusade and he became the Captain General of the Papal Fleet. But Jacques Coeur was injured in a fight in the Aegean. He died during the crusade in the island of Chio, in 1456.

The person who solemnly spoke out the sentence of Jacques Coeur was the head of French justice, Guillaume Jouvenel des Ursins. We have no portrait of Jacques Coeur, although allegedly one was made by Piero della Francesca G35 . If this painting ever existed it was lost. But Jean Fouquet made a portrait of Guillaume Jouvenel des Ursins, the Chancellor of France. It looks like the portrait of a butcher. The Jouvenels came from a bourgeois family of Paris. Their father had been provost of the merchants of Paris and his sons were all high dignitaries in the service of the King. Guillaume became Chancellor in 1445. His brother Jean Jouvenel was the Archbishop of Reims. Jean Jouvenel went on the same diplomatic missions as Jacques Coeur, to Genoa and Rome. Both men knew each other very well. Jacques Jouvenel, the other brother, was the President of the Court of Accounts – the ‘Chambre des Comptes’ – and he was a prelate like Jean. The Jouvenels were of non-aristocratic descent. Their father had tried to hide this fact by claiming descendence from an ancient Roman family called Juvénal. Thus the Jouvenels preferred their name to be spelled Juvénal. Jean Fouquet’s painting show Guillaume in the same dress as Charles VII. Guillaume holds his hands in a prayer. He might be asking for help in doing the right justice, although he does not look like a man who might be in need of any help. This man is a rock. His face has bulky features. Nobody will get past this man. He wears the ring of the keys of the Kingdom of France. The Chancellor had the guard of the Seal of France. Guillaume Jouvenel is set against a rich golden background, far richer than the austere green background of the portrait of Charles VII.

Why did the many friends of Jacques Coeur not speak out at the trial? Agnes Sorel was dead. Pierre de Brézé was not prominent anymore at the court. He had been nominated in the newly conquered Normandy and was not at the court. Etienne Chevalier was the Finance Controller. He knew what had happened. He knew that fortunes as the one of Jacques Coeur were not made without irregularities, but he also knew that the King had accepted these irregularities in the past. If Etienne Chevalier had spoken out, he would have had to expose the King. If he had spoken out, he would also have to acknowledge that he had known, as Finance Controller of course, of Jacques Coeur’s acts. Two men together formed a conspiration. Testifying would have made matters worse. So, Etienne Chevalier’s hands were tied, he kept silence. Guillaume Jouvenel could hardly testify as Chancellor and France’s head of justice at a trial of which everybody knew the King wanted its completion. In the end, the only ones who tried to help with some to little success were Robert Poitevin, Sorel’s doctor, and the Cardinal d’Estouteville. D’Estouteville was Bishop of Rouen and Cardinal of Ostia, special legate of the Pope to France. D’Estouteville was a righteous man. He had become bishop of Rouen after Alain Cauchon who had condemned Joan of Arc to be burnt on the marketplace of that town and after Charles VII had taken the town back from the English. D’Estouteville had then had a major role in the revision of the process of Jeanne d’Arc and in her public reinstitution of 1546. He would later, under Louis XI, publicly also vow to Jacques Coeur. The Cardinal could however not reach the King and talk to him: Charles refused an audience on the grounds that he was in a small castle at Chissay without apartments worthy of such a visitorG36.

Agnes Sorel

Now one can start to imagine all kinds of explanations why Agnes Sorel would be on the diptych with Etienne Chevalier. Did Chevalier himself ask Fouquet for Agnes to be painted on the panel that would be hung in his tomb chapel? Was there then a deeper connection between Agnes Sorel and Etienne Chevalier? Was Etienne Chevalier so in love also with Agnes Sorel that he wanted to have her picture close to his tomb for eternity? Chevalier handled Sorel’s will. Agnes Sorel had asked three men to execute her will: Jacques Coeur, Etienne Chevalier and her doctor Robert Poitevin. Agnes Sorel was a protector and a friend of Chevalier and also of Coeur. Was Chevalier sufficiently cynical to want Agnes Sorel to be painted disguised as a Madonna so that her portrait could be hung in a church, or was this quite accepted mores of the times?

Or did Fouquet by his own initiative present two meanings: in his real vision a Madonna caring for the child Jesus, in a second hidden vision a mistress haughtily caring for a weak King? Then in a third layer, did Fouquet warn in aversion about the distortion of feelings between the strange relations existing between King, mistress and Treasurer? Why the difference between the austere and strict Chevalier-and-Saint-Stephen panel and the licentious Agnes Sorel panel?

Was all that why Fouquet painted the scene to a background of angels that are in fact fearsome monsters? Did he want the baby Jesus to point at the monsters that loomed behind the intrigues and the decay of morals of the court of Charles VII? Did Jean Fouquet know what had happened? Did Etienne Chevalier see or not see the layers of meaning? If yes, why did he still have the painting and why was it hung in his tomb chapel? Was he such a cynical man?

Many other questions are open. Let your imagination wander. Just which and how much of these question marks hold truth? And of course, the first question that finishes all the others would be: is this truly Agnes Sorel?

We can only wonder. The truth whether this is a simple painting without hidden meanings or a complex symbolic painting of aversion, layer upon layer, will be a mystery of history. It is difficult to accept that Chevalier would not have the intelligence to see through a double meaning. But it is also difficult to think that the unconventionality of the painting is innocent or happened by accident. Jean Fouquet was too intelligent a painter for that.

Do we really want an answer to the questions? Life can be shockingly strange. Artists are the ones who lead us farthest into the realms of imagination and questions. An artist who cannot bring us there does not interest us; at best we use his paintings as decorations. The questions that the diptych and more especially the Mary and Jesus call into us, whether by accident of history or deliberately willed by both Jean Fouquet and Etienne Chevalier, emphasise the wonder of life. They make of the painting one of the most subtle, weird, intriguing, interesting, remarkable, wild, unconventional images that we know. Even a modern painting with these themes would still be very interesting and new. This one comes from the fifteenth century and from an artist who was almost a lone genius in a France that would have to wait a century more to have comparable genius painters.

History continues to live. You can visit the Jacques Coeur palace in Bourges. You can visit the castle of Chinon, the towns and places on the Loire River where Charles VII resided many times. You can see the cathedral of Melun and the ruins of the abbey of Jumièges in Normandy. The castle of Chissay even still exists. Agnes Sorel was buried in a sarcophagus of the medieval citadel town of Loches, where she had received a small castle, one of the ‘Logis Royaux’, in which she lived her last years and received Charles VII. In this same castle Charles received Joan of Arc in 1429 when she urged him to be crowned in Reims. You can visit Loches as it lies not far from Tours and the Loire castles.

King Charles VII had four daughters by Agnes Sorel. Charlotte was married in 1462 to Jacques de Brézé, Grand-Marshal of Normandy. The Count de Brézé surprised her in adultery with one of his servants and stabbed her in 1477. Marguerite married the Sénéchal of Guyenne, Olivier de Coetivy in 1458. Jeanne married Antoine de Breuil, Count of Sancerre. The fourth girl, born in the Manoir of Le Mesnil, survived her mother only a few months G44 .

Agnes Sorel died close to Jumièges, supported by the monks of the abbey. She left quite some money to the abbey for the peace of her soul. She asked that her hearth and bowels be kept in Jumièges and that her body be buried at Loches. This separation of hearth and body was quite common in the Middle Ages for people of noble blood. The friends she had named executed her will: Robert Poitevin, Jacques Coeur and Etienne Chevalier.

A monument to her honour was erected in Jumièges and in Loches. The tomb in Loches was placed in the middle of the collegial church. The sarcophagus was of black marble and on top was placed a sculpture in white marble representing Agnes Sorel accompanied by two angels and two small sheep at her feet. The canons of Loches had received money for accepting Agnes in their church. But after the death of Charles VII and during a visit of Louis XI, they asked the new King for permission to withdraw the monument. They thought to flatter Louis XI, but to his credit the latter retorted he would agree on the condition that the canons gave back all that Sorel had given them G44 . The demand was repeated in the following centuries however and was finally accepted in 1777 when the tomb was placed in the nave of the church. The sarcophagus was opened and a first coffin of wood was discovered, then one in lead and a third in wood again. Rests of her body were found and placed in the tomb. During the French Revolution, these rests were profaned but the Préfet of the Department gathered what could be saved. Still later, the remains were placed again in a sarcophagus and monument with the figures as before restored by a Parisian artist G44 . This monument was placed in a tower of Loches called after her. It is now in the main room of the castle of Loches.

The tomb of Jumièges was equally made of black marble G44 . It had a statue of black marble representing Agnes Sorel on her knees, holding in her hands a hearth that she offered to the Virgin Mary in order to be reconciled with God. This statue was destroyed during the Calvinist wars in the sixteenth century. The rest of the tomb was destroyed during the French Revolution. The abbey of Jumièges was then sold by the French Government and given over to destruction. Only ruins subsist of Jumièges now, but they are some of the most imposing of France.

Agnes Sorel’s tomb of Jumièges bore various epitaphs G44 . But on both the tombs of Loches and Jumièges was an epitaph with almost the same contents:

‘Ci gist noble damoiselle Agnès de Sorel, en son vivant Dame de Beauté, Rocherie, etc; piteuse envers toutes gens, et qui largement donnoit de son bien aux églises et aux pauvres: laquelle trépassa le 9ième jour de Février 1499. Priez Dieu pour le repos de l’âme d’elle. Amen’ G44 . (Here lies the noble lady Agnes Sorel, while alive the Lady of Beauté and Rocherie, etc.; she was likeable to all people and gave largely of her possessing to the churches and the poor; she died the 9th day of February 1499. Pray to God for the rest of her soul. Amen.) The date was 1499 because in those times the New Year started at Easter.

On her tomb in the castle of Loches, Agnes Sorel lies in white marble. Young sheep at her feet are the symbol of her sweetness. Two angels protect her fair face with their long wings.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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