The Donne Triptych: piety and self-promotion


By the fourteenth century the donor of a religious painting or window had the recognised privilege of being added into the image as a humble suppliant.   Initially the donors are smaller than scale and often outside the sacred space – the first of the congregation to adore, but with no pretence to join the object of adoration.  The picture below is a good late fourteenth century example of the tiny donor.

Madonna and child with donors, Cecco di Pietro 1386, now in Portland Art Museum

Richard II, a King of notorious splendour, was an early adopter of a bolder style.   In the Wilton Diptych he appears full size, kneeling at the foot of the saints who introduce him to the Court of the Madonna and Child.  However, he maintains separation from the Court of Heaven by splitting the image between the two panels.  The saints with Richard include his personal patron, John the Baptist and two previous Kings of England – Edward the Confessor and Edmund Martyr.  The king at prayer in this world has powerful divine supporters who mediate for him with the Court of Heaven which he does not enter.  This is theologically correct, but also makes a gesture towards the special sacredness of the King.   The king is joined to the company of Heaven by his succession to the kingship, which he inherits from his sainted royal ancestors; the men who, by God’s will, have passed the royal mantle down to him.   (Edward was, in fact, a relative of some sort, and why not Edmund too?)

Wilton Diptych.jpg
Wilton Diptych c.1395-9

But in the fourteenth century donors get bigger, and, although they still kneel piously, they move fully into the holy space.  Sir John Donne of Kidwelly, sometime deputy governor of Calais, was not a King or even the despot of an Italian city state, but this is the painting he commissioned from Bruges in the late fourteenth century, featuring himself, his wife and a daughter.

The Donne Triptych (Centre Panel), Hans Memling c1478  


Sir John Donne and his wife push Saints Catherine and Barbara into the background, and their full robes spill onto the carpet which defines the space allocated to the Madonna and Child.  In fact the Holy Child is waving cheerfully in Sir John’s direction.  The donors do not face the Madonna, or look sideways like many earlier and smaller donors.  Instead they give the viewer the benefit of their true portraits.

Courtiers in real life, Sir John and his wife seem very much at home in the Court of Heaven.  The Madonna wears the same type of oversized fur-lined robe as his wife.  In token of her perpetual virginity, she has loose hair, but Saints Catherine and Barbara have courtly hairstyles and fasionable clothes.  Saint Catherine wears the daring sideless surcote which shoes off the tight kirtle beneath.  Saint Barbara’s sleeveless surcote shows off her rich under-sleeves.  The Donne’s clothes are distinguished by less brilliant colour, but they are no less rich.  Both husband and wife wear gold suns and roses with jewelled lion pendants  specifically denoting their high tank under Edward IV, and probably given by him – the Court of Heaven is clearly Yorkist.  They are nearer the Madonna than Sir John’s patron Saints, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, who occupy the two wings of the triptych, now shown here.

The language of secular and spiritual power is one and the same.  Those who are first on earth are most definitely not last in the Kingdom of Heaven – they are first there too.  I find these paintings with integrated donors very hard to grasp at the spiritual level.  Clearly, as a believer, Sir John imagines himself in the presence of Heaven when he prays, but does this personal spiritual sense of connection survive being transferred to public display?  There something peculiar about worshipping yourself worshipping, let alone intruding your image into the prayers of others.  Painting like this seem to stake the claims of secular lords to access to divine approval in a way which actually diminishes the separateness and holiness of the divine.  Of course the Church of the period was a highly political place; what is striking is to see that secular power blazoning itself across religious icons, as if Adidas were to start sponsoring altars bearing their logo.

Part of the dissonance is, of course, the courtly fashions.  It is no longer general practice to show holy figures in the clothes of the day.  Ironically, decades of Christmas cards, have made us very accepting of showing divine figures in Renaissance clothing.  On the one hand, there was no tradition in Western Europe of trying to reconstruct some sort of historical dress.  But on the other, the fourteenth century shows a move from rich robes of fairly indefinite period to specific contemporary fashions.  Pietro’s Madonna above, in the restrained style which originated with the copying and recopying of icons, is wrapped in a huge traditional veil which obscures any contemporary clothing features.  In the Wilton diptych, the Kings have identifiable costume, but the Court of Heaven is distinguished by loose garments of overwhelming blue, except for the Christchild’s gold smock.  I wonder how it affected the worshipper first to have the Saints become conscious of high fashion and then have the local gentry join them in their niches.

Sir John Donne’s confidence in divine approval was repaid.  He was one of the Yorkist nobles who successfully retained favour in the Court of Henry Tudor, after the defeat of Richard III and his Yorkist forces in the Battle of Bosworth 1485.  He and his wife are buried at St George’s Chapel, Windsor.  His sons went onto found English dynasties – the Earls of Oxford, Burlington and Cumbria and the Dukes of Devonshire claim descent.  His career is a reminder of how the Tudor dynasty began the marginalisation of the Welsh lands, as many great lords became satellites of the increasingly centralised English Court.  Kidwelly itself has the ruins of its Norman castle to testify that it was once the stronghold of a powerful and wealthy dynast.

General view from the southKidwelly Castle 7(42)
Kidwelly Castle

In this way, Kidwelly and other Welsh castle towns became forgotten by-waters, which now seem to have been gifted with ruins merely to increase the sense of the picturesque. Sir John Donne, knighted on Tewkesbury Field, a great lord of his time, with the might of Kidwelly behind him.  Who would have thought it?

One last note on Sir John – in the picture both his wife and the Virgin have open books.  It is quite novel to have the Madonna try to dandle the Christchild and read at the same time, though not unique.  In fact, Sir John was also a commissioner of prayerbooks.  Two are in the British Library and you can find out more about the third, now in Louvain, here.  Wearing his armour, Sir John  prays (rubric) to his good angel.  The prayer begins ‘O angelic guardian.’  In the beautiful gilded border, under Sir John’s armorial bearings, a peasant cuts grapes.  The creeping vines are heavy laden but infested with snakes.  These could be an allegory of the devil, against whom Christ’s blood, consumed as wine in the Mass, is the sovereign remedy.  Or they could be Lancastrians in the Yorkist vineyard.  In any case, a guardian angel is evidently an important ally.

Louthe or Donne Hours, Simon Marmion, c. 1480


May the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.

Mary’s books in three Renaissance Pictures

Today is or isn’t Assumption dependent on your point of view.  In my many years as an Anglican (Anglo-Catholics, look away now), I have heard almost no sermons on the Virgin Mary, despite the fact that she is the subject of quite a lot of verses in the Gospels.  The disciple who mothered Jesus and was with him at his death, who was mentioned in his dying words, gets a very poor reception in Protestant  preaching.

On one Sunday August 15th, I heard a well-respected Anglican divine improve what had recently become the anniversary of the Omagh bombing with schoolmasterly tuttings about the follies of Catholics.  Mary is the only disciple whose name seems to trigger the impulse to slag off other Christians from the pulpit.  For me, that ought to be St Paul, who spends loads of time slagging off other Christians, but what do I know?

More constructively, I once heard a trainee Baptist minister attempt the topic. It was a brave move – you could actually hear the eyebrows rising.   The line he took was hardly flattering to the one blessed among women, or women in general; Mary ‘would have been’ a typical teenage girl, as in a ditsy phone addict with the IQ of a rabbit.  After all, God can choose anyone, even Mary.

At the moment, I am interested in assumptions about Mary’s literacy in Renaissance art.  Mediaeval and Renaissance Christians assumed that Mary could read, that she studied God’s word and that her spirituality helped prepare her for her role as the mother of Christ.  In many images of the Annunciation,  Mary is pictured reading devotionally when the angel visits her.  Traditionally, she reads Isaiah 7. 14.  Here is an Annunciation by Duccio.  If you go to the National Gallery Site where it comes from, you can zoom in on the book and actually read the words; ECCE VIRGO CONCIPIET ET PARIET FILIUM ET VOCABITUR.  Everyone is a bit greenish because the painting comes from Siena, where they used a green under-layer for flesh tones.

Duccio Annunciation completed 1311

The book in this picture is not realistic.  The writing is artificially large to communicate the text.  My post on St Anne Teaching the Virgin to Read helps make the point that giving Mary books in art is not just an ornamental way of introducing the Scriptural text.  Mary was definitely assumed to be literate.  The Master of Liesborn  Annunciation, which I published in that post, is particularly interesting because it includes a horn book, the basic literacy tool for ordinary people, and a scrap of writing.  Here it is again.

Master of Liesborn Annunciation, National Gallery

Just under the back window is the horn book.   The scrap of writing is on the table.  This is interesting in itself, because it suggests that Mary can write – a different skill in the period.  She might be practising writing, or copying something she needs to keep, maybe for a commonplace book.  Little strips of writing could also be charms, although this doesn’t seem right here.

If you follow through to the National Gallery Link, you will be able to magnify the pieces of writing to try to see what they say.  The detail in this picture is so fascinating it is well worth doing.  In fact, I don’t think there are distinct words – the book in the foreground only has black and red lines which look like writing.

However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t hope to identify what the writing is supposed to say.  Sometimes the artist includes features which indicate the content of the text.  I’m going to finish this blog with a beautiful picture that illustrates this.

Annunciation by Van Eyck, Fifteenth Century in National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

You should be able to magnify this picture too if you visit the link.  And it is well worth doing.  This artist imagines the Annunciation in a Cathedral -like environment.  This doesn’t mean he got the location wrong – the structure is probably symbolic, though it could represent an actual Church.  Of all the many things in this picture, I am especially interested in the book.  The writing is not legible, but the artist has included an ornate letter P; the first letter of Isaiah 7. 14 in Latin – PROPTER.  So where Duccio depicts the book unrealistically in order to make the text legible, Van Eyck makes the book realistic and just uses one letter to suggest the missing text.  But on the top of the page on the viewer’s left, upside down, from Mary’s point of view, are the letters ES, presumably for Esaias, or Isaiah.

But does Mary only ever read Isaiah 7. 14?  If you use the magnification option, you can see that she and the angel are literally standing on Old Testament stories, interlaced with signs of the Zodiac.  There is a compendium of learning under their feet.  As she converses on a level with the angel, this serene Mary seems to be a conscious participant in her destiny.

However, Van Eyck’s painting is a symbolic meditation on the place of the Incarnation in God’s plan, rather than a realistic depiction.  Mary clearly does not actually live in a large Church.  This painting places her in a theological perspective, not a natural environment.  Perhaps all the learning belongs to Mary as part of her special grace from God.  This Mary doesn’t seem to have a human life where she actually does everyday things and has to study and pray.

So my favourite Annunciation so far remains the Master of Liesborn, whose Mary is so real that she needs a cord to hold up the canopy of her curtained bed.  She lives in a luxurious bedsitter, with a bedside cupboard, a candlestick, embroidered cushions on a settle, and she has a horn book and writes on scraps of parchment.  This is a Mary who definitely reads.

This post is dedicated to my brother Jonathan.