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Sacred Icon or Secular Portrait?

Part 5:

Sacred images of the Virgin and Child in this format were used in a domestic setting as an aid to one’s private devotions. A person would kneel before it with their Bible or prayer book and contemplate it in a devotional way as part of their daily round of worship and prayer. Such an image was, in effect, a sacred icon. If this is what the Marquis had intended the picture to be, it would seem rather inappropriate to have his wife and son model for the Virgin and Christ child. Whilst it was not uncommon to have oneself or members of one’s family represented as heroes, gods or goddesses from classical mythology, or as donors, worshippers or onlookers in a holy scene, to have oneself or a family member painted as a major figure in the Biblical narrative such as the Virgin or Christ is otherwise unheard of and would probably be unseemly to say the least.

It is more likely that the Marquis intended it to be first and foremost a portrait of his wife and son, who, as a very clever conceit, are ‘dressed up’ as the Virgin and Christ. It is easy to imagine the Marquis hanging the picture in a part of his residence where his guests could see it and admire its wit and cleverness. Perhaps it was intended to initially fool people, who had to look a second time to realise that it was in fact a portrait of the Marquis’ wife and son rather than a sacred picture of the Virgin and Child. The educated, cultured men of the Marquis’ milieu would certainly have appreciated the witty conceit. It could even have served as a sort of party game for his artistically-aware friends.

There is another very interesting possibility. Small devotional images of the Virgin and Child in this format were often part of a diptych - they formed one of a pair of panels that were hinged together. The second panel, of the same size and format as the first, would be a portrait of the donor, or the person who commissioned the work. He would normally be shown with his hands clasped in prayer, looking toward the Virgin and Child and worshipping them. We know that Gossaert painted such diptychs because at least one survives today. Is it possible that this picture originally formed part of such a diptych, with the Marquis himself portrayed in the second panel, so that while worshipping the Virgin and Child he was at the same time paying homage to and demonstrating his intense devotion to his wife? If so, the panel of the Marquis has been lost, which is quite common with diptychs – over time, so many of them have become separated, and the panel showing the donor, who is less important and possibly even unknown or unidentifiable to subsequent owners of the picture, has disappeared.

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