Why There’s More to this Extraordinary Painting Than Meets the Eye

A bizarre painting explained

Christopher P Jones
7 min readAug 31, 2023

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Mary and Child Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim, part of the Melun Diptych (1452-1458) by Jean Fouquet. Oil on panel. 94.5 × 85.5 cm. Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Belgium. Image source Wikimedia Commons

It can take a few moments of looking to fully acclimatise to this striking image.

Made by the French artist Jean Fouquet in about 1458, it shows an enthroned Madonna holding the baby Christ on her lap.

The Virgin Mary’s appearance is particularly puzzling, being so pale, sleek and otherworldly, as if carved from stone. Her artificially rotund nursing breast is also hard to ignore.

Historians have long deliberated over how to “read” this unusual painting, which is more or less unique in the history of art — and their conclusions are surprising.

Regal Mary

The Virgin’s face is grey-white and streamlined, with finely plucked eyebrows and barely a hairline to speak of. She wears a cloak lined with ermine fur and a jewelled crown on her head — as opposed to the more familiar halo. In other words, Mary is dressed like a queen.

In the history of art, depictions of Mary tend to sit between two extremes.

In late-medieval devotional paintings, the “Madonna of Humility” became popular, with Mary shown seated humbly on the ground or on a low cushion. (If you’re wondering why we call Mary “Madonna” then you might be interested to learn that it comes from the Italian ma donna or “my lady”.)

Alternatively, from as early as the 11th century, a tradition emerged with the Madonna on a gilded throne known as the “throne of wisdom” (sedes sapientiae).

As time passed, the veneration of Mary as the “Queen of Heaven” became more pronounced. Paintings in this tradition tended to be larger than the earlier devotional images. The effect was to turn Mary into a more aristocratic figure, an idealised regal queen on a grand scale, often surrounded by saints, perhaps even the result of a divine vision.

Detail of ‘Mary and Child Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim’, part of the Melun Diptych (1452–1458) by Jean Fouquet. Oil on panel. 94.5 × 85.5 cm. Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Belgium. Image source Wikimedia Commons

This painting undoubtedly shows the Virgin Mary in full-blown monarchal splendour. She is sitting on a golden throne, with marble, pearl and gemstone inlays and a series…

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