The Elements of Flanders in an Anonymous Triptych at LACMA
August 30, 2010 Leave a comment
The Elements of Flanders in the Madonna and Child with Angels; Donor and His Patron Saint Peter Martyr; and Saint Jerome and his Lion Triptych by the Master of the St. Lucy Legend
Written for ART HIS 57 at UCLA with Professor Charlene Villaseñor Black on January 27, 2010.
This was the first formal analysis I wrote at UCLA. I believe I got an A- from my teaching assistant, Lisa Boutin, who was sweet, patient, and was knowledgeable about the topic. Professor Black made the course material come to life and was instrumental in confirming my personal passion for art history. This was my first art history course, even though I had already declared my major as art history when I applied to UCLA, so it was reassuring and exciting for me to realize that I did make the right decision.
A picture of the work can be found here.
The term “Renaissance” has functioned as such an ideological blanket that the numerous aesthetic and subjective divides that actually existed in Europe during this time may frequently (and rather foolishly) be blurred and rendered indistinctive. The Madonna and Child with Angels; Donor and His Patron Saint Peter Martyr; and Saint Jerome and his Lion Triptych by the Master of the St. Lucy Legend is a prime example of the Renaissance that occurred in Flanders, a Renaissance that flowered in its own distinctive capacity. This particular triptych, a three-part oil painting on oak panel, is consistent with the Flemish zeitgeist in its intimate portrayal of the religious subject matter, the opulent meticulousness in regards to detail and texture, and broader strategies of emphasis as evidenced by attention to composition and perspective.
As the title suggests, the triptych depicts Madonna and Christ enthroned, accompanied by attentive angels on her left and right in the central panel. The Madonna is stately and serene, but her somewhat expressionless face seems to belie an inner melancholy as she watches her only son, the innocent and wide-eyed baby Jesus, reach out to grasp the symbolic crimson carnation of the Passion as though it were a mere child’s plaything. On the left panel, an unidentified patron kneels in prayer, assured by the protective hand of his patron saint, Saint Peter, while in the second panel Saint Jerome stands with his tamed lion. In Christian iconography, Saint Peter is associated with leading the church or being the “rock” of Christ and the sword he grasps in his left hand may be a reference to Peter’s angered mutilation of Malchus’ (the servant of the high priest that accompanied the soldiers to arrest Christ) ear. The decision to position the sword in repose as if in stern contemplation before Peter’s brash action, reinforces the purpose of this work as a private devotional altarpiece commonly commissioned in Flanders that helped the viewer to visualize and reflect on his own actions while engaging in religious ritual. Saint Jerome, who is accompanied by the lion, is portrayed in accordance to the legend that he tamed the beast by plucking a thorn from his foot. The lion’s paw in Saint Jerome’s hand can be viewed as both a reference to the text of the legend as well as a visual confirmation of the lion’s tameness.
The interplay of these different visual cues is essential to the work’s association with Flemish taste. Michelangelo was noted for having said that Flemish art is for women and monks precisely because of the wealth of details. Such details give the patron’s eye a visual feast to devour on two levels: that of the religious imagination and that of his own immense wealth and lavish taste. The rich, glossy colors of the Madonna’s robe first stress her central importance to the work, but second reinforce her love towards her son in the form of the deep red color and to her grief at his imminent demise in the dark shade of blue. The throne upon which she sits is constructed of precious materials, most importantly the flawless columns of crystal to symbolize the Madonna’s chastity and purity. While the white cloth on her lap may indicate the same integrity of the Madonna, its function as Christ’s swaddling drapery may also suggest the loincloth he is reduced to wearing at the time of his crucifixion. While the uncompromising attention to the crumpled textiles is distinctly Flemish, the rest of the painted space comprising of the heavily adorned backrest of the throne, the lush footrest made of presumably expensive fabric, and the elaborately patterned floor (which combines three distinct floor patterns) best exemplify the Flemish appreciation for the indoor environment.
The painting’s environment as a whole is also deeply concerned with the ideals of religious meaning and detail. First and foremost, the pyramidal composition of the Madonna as she sits on her throne is both a signifier of her motherly stability but also of the three-parted Holy Trinity. This triangle is echoed again by the smaller isosceles triangle formed by part of her gown being lifted, with the apex of this triangle directing the viewer’s eye to the baby Jesus. As a whole, the triptych is compositionally symmetric, with the angel on one side mirroring the other, the saints’ tall statures vertically enhancing the sense of permanence, and the kneeling patron on the left comparably in submission to the diminutive lion on the right. In fact, the composition is effective because of the subtle hieratic scale employed to distribute visual importance: the Madonna’s proportions essentially dwarf those of the patron’s to underscore his piousness and respect for the literally larger-than-life figures before him. The importance of these figures lends itself to the construction of the background space as well, in which the Flemish technique of intuitive perspective reveals the small urban landscape on the left and the untamed, naturalistic surroundings on the right. This holds an additional significance because Saint Peter’s role related to urban centers of people; after all, he was the founder of the church. On the other hand, Saint Jerome is noted for living as a hermit in the Holy Land. The lack of definitive perspective orthogonals gives the scene the Flemish intimacy and density remarkable in its own right.
In many ways it is unfortunate that the artist of this work was never specifically identified, for his quintessential Flemish techniques might have legitimately placed him amongst the likes of the great Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. But at the very least, his work has survived to exist within a great tradition of northern Renaissance painters and to exemplify their distinctive style of remarkable detail in both the religious and aesthetic elements of art.
 Pierce, James Smith, From Abacus to Zeus: A Handbook of Art History, (Upper Saddle River, Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004), 159.
 Ibid, 154.