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Sacred Icon or Secular Portrait?

Part 6:

You’ve probably noticed the fictive frame behind the Virgin/Anne de Bergues. She is clearly in front of the frame, not contained by it in any way. This was a favourite conceit of Gossaert, who frequently used it in his portraits and occasionally in images of the Virgin and Child as well - hence it contributes to, rather than helps us to resolve, the ambiguity of the picture. The visual effect in either case is that the figures seem to inhabit the same space as the viewer, as though they are really present to us - it is as if we are looking at the actual figures themselves, rather than a picture of them. This effect is enhanced by the direct outward gaze of Anne, who seems to confront and respond to us, as does her son.

Another ambiguity is created by the way Gossaert has painted the child’s left hand. At first glance, he looks as though his hand is raised in a typical gesture of benediction. But if you look closely, you see that he is in fact holding a string of beads. You cannot see the end of the beads, so cannot tell for certain whether it is intended to be a rosary (as would be appropriate for Him to hold) - or not.

Take a moment to admire the beautiful painting: the exquisite detail in the neckline of Anne’s dress, the gems in her hair, the semi-transparent material of the child’s clothing. A number of copies of this work exist, a few of them of very high quality. This demonstrates that people in the sixteenth century were as fascinated by the picture as we are today. The fact that we can never be 100% certain whether this is indeed a sacred icon of the Virgin and Child, or whether it is a clever, playful or idealised portrait is testimony to Gossaert’s incredible ability to shift between two different pictorial modes. Through a series of carefully crafted visual ambiguities, Gossaert skilfully straddles the boundary between portrait and icon, between sacred and profane. That we are left guessing is tribute to his success.

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