Small Paintings Tell a Big Story
Historian Paul Monod unraveled some of the mysteries surrounding the College’s two 15th-century Flemish panel paintings for an admiring audience of art aficionados on Feb. 28 in the Mahaney Center for the Arts. The works, which are in the permanent collection of the Middlebury College Museum of Art, are currently on display in the museum.
The exquisite paintings on wooden panels are attributed to the “Master of the St. Ursula Legend,” an unnamed artist working in Bruges between 1475 and 1500. The panels are the outside wings of a triptych – a popular format for religious art – and the whereabouts of the third or center panel is also unknown.
And yet Monod, the A. Barton Hepburn Professor of History at Middlebury, has determined almost to a certainty the identities of most of the major figures depicted on the panels. He has also determined when the works were painted, and has informed opinions about who the Master of St. Ursula was, why the paintings were commissioned, and what might constitute the subject of the missing middle panel.
“I have been in love with these two panels ever since we acquired them and they have fascinated me since I first set eyes upon them,” said Professor Monod, who acknowledged that he is not an art historian by training. Rather, he is an expert in 17th- and 18th-century European history, particularly the history of the British Isles, and he was motivated to delve deeply into the origins and symbolism of the panels because “they are very, very rare and very, very fascinating.”
Monod sees a direct British connection in the right-hand panel of the Middlebury triptych, particularly in the “protecting saint” shown carrying a scepter, wearing an open crown, and dressed in a gown bearing the coat of arms of England. Monod concludes that the figure in the painting is King Henry VI, although Henry VI was never canonized. The painter depicted the king to appear much as British royalty did on the coinage of the day: “a generic portrait of a king…with long flowing hair and a youngish look.”
Monod is certain that the man shown kneeling before the king commissioned the making of the triptych, the outside panels of which measure just over 20 inches in height and eight inches in width. “It is quite clear that he wanted something small and quite possibly portable, but he also wanted it packed with saints…for every possibility and every occasion.”
So who commissioned the work? “The man in the right-hand panel is well dressed, but not well dressed enough to be a nobleman, nor is he carrying a nobleman’s sword,” which leads Monod to believe that the patron of the triptych was “a wealthy merchant, an alderman of a town, or someone high-ranking within a city,” presumably in England.
The author of five books and an assiduous researcher, Paul Monod examined the iconography associated with the eight saints in the left wing of the triptych and used those “clues” to determine who they are and how they might hold meaning to the patron.
According to Monod, the saints in the background of the left panel are: St. Anthony Abbot, shown with fire coming from his feet; St. Barbara, who is about to be decapitated; St. Sebastian, who is naked and shot with arrows; and St. Giles, who is carrying a crosier in front of a hermit’s cell. The saints shown as bishops in the foreground of the left panel are: St. Nicholas, who has at his feet two little boys in a barrel; St. Omer, with a thick pair of eyeglasses; St. Eligius, who is holding a goldsmith’s hammer; and St. Blaise, with a wool-combers carding tool.
Each of the eight saints must have held significance to the patron who paid for the creation of the triptych, Monod explained. For example, it was believed that St. Barbara guarded against thunder and lightning, St. Blaise protected those in the wool trade, and St. Anthony was appealed to for infectious diseases.
Before Paul Monod concluded his research, the identities of St. Giles and St. Omer in the triptych were not known, and the identity of King Henry VI had never been confirmed.
The Middlebury historian and others have deduced that the triptych was painted in the studio of Pieter Cassinbroodt, a free master of the Bruges Guild of St. Luke. Based on his research, Monod believes that the Middlebury panels were most likely painted in 1495 by one or more of Cassinbroodt’s apprentices. (Cassinbroodt was known to take on as many as seven apprentices.)
The final piece of the puzzle is the center panel: where did it go, what did it depict, and why did it get separated from its wings? We may never know the answers to those questions, Monod remarked, but it’s likely that the missing center panel showed a powerful religious image such as the body of Christ being brought down from the cross.
The one certainty, though, is why the triptych was commissioned. It was intended to be “a declaration of a kind of political loyalty and it’s meant to show that the patron has accepted the political transition and change of power” from King Henry VI to Henry VII.
He concluded: “This is a very rare piece that has a big, important story to tell, if not by me then by others in the years to come. These two panels – these two tiny, little panels – will reveal more and more about the history of the times, about the person who commissioned them, and about these charming little saints who are posed so mysteriously against this fascinating landscape.”
Middlebury College acquired the two painted panels in 2011 through the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Fund. The Museum of Art is open to the public without charge Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.