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Sacred Icon or Secular Portrait?

Part 4:

Gossaert painted several compositions of the Virgin and Child, most of them dating - as this picture probably does - from the last decade of his life, the 1520s and early 1530s. They have several elements in common. Like this painting, most are either half-lengths or busts. The majority, like this picture, show the Virgin head-on, against a plain background with a fictive, painted frame (or, occasionally, in a niche of classical architecture), holding the Christ child in close proximity as she is here. In short, at first glance, this picture generically conforms to the general ‘formula’ or standard ‘type’ for devotional works of the Virgin and Child.

Except of course, that this Virgin is staring straight out of the picture, confronting the viewer and looking him or her directly in the eye like a brazen hussy - she does not have her eyes modestly downcast and head inclined downward and to one side as she usually does, and as befits her status as a humble, pious virgin. And this ‘virgin’ has got on a suspiciously fashionable dress - what is the Virgin doing in a trendy frock from Top Shop? Further, nearly all of Gossaert’s Virgins have the same petite, sweet facial type - hardly the broad, fleshy face and oddly-shaped eyes of this woman, whose features seem remarkably individualised and portrait-like. What’s going on here?

It is recorded that Gossaert painted a Virgin and Child for the Marquis de Veere, the nephew of Philip of Burgundy, using his wife, Anne de Bergues, and their infant son as models. There are other known portraits of Anne de Bergues that appear to show the same woman as in our picture. On the basis of this likeness, it is reasonable to assume that this is the picture Gossaert painted for the Marquis.

This resolves some questions - the unnerving, direct, outward gaze; the trendy frock; the personalised features characteristic of a portrait - but raises others. How, for example, did the Marquis view the work - first and foremost as a devotional image of the Virgin and Child who bear the features of his wife and son, or as a witty portrait of his wife and son dressed up as the Virgin and Child as a clever conceit? Of course, we can never know for certain, and can only speculate.

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