Do you like jigsaw puzzles? Do you like a mystery? I hope so as today my featured paintings are just part of an artistic and mysterious jigsaw puzzle. I will be looking at the three remaining pieces of an original oil on wood work of art and a sketch which may give a clue as to what the original complete painting may have looked like. From the three remaining pieces which still exist, one can tell it must have been a truly beautiful work of art. The artist who painted the work was the great early Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden. I featured one of his best known works entitled The Descent from the Cross in My Daily Art Display on November 15th 2010 and today I am pleased to feature another of his fine works.
Rogier van der Weyden was born in, what is now, the Belgium town of Tournai around 1399. His name at that time was actually Rogier de le Pasture which literally translated meant Roger of the Pasture. His father Henri de le Pasture was a knife manufacturer. At the age of 26 he married Elisabeth Goffaert, the daughter of a Brussels shoemaker, and they had four children. In 1436 he was given the position of , (painter to the town), of Brussels, a post especially created for him. It was whilst living in Brussels, which was then a Dutch-speaking town that he began to use the Dutch version of his name: Rogier van der Weyden.
The complete painting I am featuring today was entitled Virgin and Child with Saints, but it does not exist anymore. However three parts of the work have survived. One of these is entitled The Magdalen Reading and is housed at the National Gallery in London. The other two pieces entitled Head of Saint Joseph and Head of Female Saint (St Catherine?) are to be found in the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon. It is believed that all three pieces were once part of a large Sacra Conversazione painted by Rogier van der Weyden some time between 1435 and 1438. A Sacra Conversazione is an Italian phrase which literally translates to “holy conversation”. The phrase is designated to works of art, normally altarpieces, which depict the Virgin and Child flanked by attendant saints, who are grouped in a single panel, rather than a multi-panelled polyptych. From the fifteenth century the sacra conversazione began to replace the polyptych. The word “conversazione” alludes to the characters in the painting being in intimate conversation with one another. This depiction of the saints communing with each other was unusual as normally in religious works of the time the saints would be shown simply meditating or reading and it was not until a century later that they took on a more animated quality.
Although the original and complete painting does not exist any longer we have some idea what it looked like as there exists a drawing of the almost complete work in the National Museum of Fine Arts in central Stockholm which was drawn by a follower of Rogier van der Weyden. Although it is an incomplete sketch, it gives one an idea of what the original finished painting looked like. In this drawing we see standing on the left a bishop saint with a mitre on his head. In his left hand he holds his crosier, his pastoral staff, and his right hand is raised as he makes a blessing. If you look to the right of this figure you can see there is a narrow vertical gap with a few curved but faint vertical lines and it is in this gap that art historians believe was the lower part of the kneeling figure of the female saint, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a fourth century martyr, whose head and shoulders appear in the Lisbon painting.
However, some art historians, who have studied the three pieces of the painting, have come to the conclusion that the depiction of Saint Catherine may not have been painted by van Weyden himself. The Scottish art historian, Lorne Campbell, an expert on early Netherlandish paintings, wrote in his 2004 book, Van der Weyden, that the depiction of the head of Saint Catherine was “obviously less well drawn and less successfully painted than the figure in the Magdalen “and as far as he was concerned the image of Saint Catherine may have been painted by one of the members of van Weyden’s workshop.
The next figure along in the sketch is a bearded barefooted figure holding an open book. This is thought to be John the Baptist. Seated to the right of him is the Virgin who holds the Christ Child in her lap. The Christ Child is wriggling himself out of his mother’s grasp as he tries to look at another book which the kneeling man, on the right, is showing him. This man is believed to be John the Evangelist. As I said earlier, this drawing seems to be an unfinished sketch of the original painting, not just because of the empty space between the bishop and John the Baptist but more importantly because it does not show what is believed to have been the complete right hand side of the original painting, part of which forms the work held in London’s National Gallery entitled The Magdalen Reading. Because the sketch does not show the right hand section of the original painting it is believed that this was the first section to have been cut from the original.
So let us examine both the sketch and the Magdalen Reading painting and see if we can envisage the two being joined. Look at the robes of the figure kneeling in the extreme right of the sketch. See how they lie along the floor but suddenly stop at the edge of the sketch. Look carefully at how the folds of this robe in the black and white sketch compare with the folds of the red robe on the floor to the left in the Magdalen Reading, close to where we see the bottom of a stick or cane which is being held by somebody who is not fully shown in the painting. The stick touches the red flowing robes which are almost certain to be the robes of the kneeling John the Evangelist of the sketch.
So now we have what we believe is the bottom right hand part of the original painting in the guise of The Magdalen Reading. This fragment of the original painting depicts a woman with pale skin and high cheekbones. This is Mary Magdalen. She sits piously reading a holy book, the cover of which includes a chemise of white cloth, which protects the precious tome. We see her deep in contemplation as she reads. According to art historian, Lorne Campbell, the book she is reading looks similar to a 13th century French Bible. She seems quite oblivious to those around her. Her head is tilted so that her eyes are shyly turned from us, the viewer. She sits on a red cushion and leans back slightly and relaxes against a kind of wooden sideboard. On the floor by her side is a white alabaster jar. This is her traditional attribute in Christian art as the Gospels tell of her bringing spices in it to the tomb of Jesus. Look how beautifully van Weyden has portrayed her. She wears a long green robe which is pulled tightly below her bust by a dark blue sash. From beneath the robe we catch a glimpse of the gold brocade of her underskirt which is hemmed with many jewels. Van Weyden has spent much time in depicting detail, such as the many folds of her green robe, or the rosary beads dangling from Saint Joseph’s hand.
In the background we have a view through a window which overlooks a canal in the distance. On this side of the canal positioned on the wall of the garden there is an archer and across the canal we catch sight of a figure walking along the opposite canal bank. The background and the headless torso are visible to us today but that was not always the case as the background of the painting had been over-painted with a thick layer of brown paint. It was not until the painting was cleaned in 1956 that the figure behind Mary Magdalen, the red robe of the kneeling figure on the left and the landscape view through the window were revealed.
But what about the top right hand part of the original painting. For this we must go to the painting held in Lisbon’s Museu Calouste Gulbenkianand study their painting entitled Head of Saint Joseph. If you place this painting above the Magdalen Reading painting you can see that the head and shoulders of the man in the Lisbon painting fit perfectly with the lower torso of the “head-less” figure shown standing to the side of Mary Magdalen in the London painting. The man in the Lisbon painting has been identified as Saint Joseph and if you look carefully at his right shoulder you will see a slight hint of a red sleeve which can be clearly seen continuing on the “headless” torso in the Magdalen Reading painting. In one hand he holds a walking stick or cane and in the other he holds rosary beads made of rock crystals. So we now have managed to place the three individual paintings into the one work…….or do we?
I raise the hint of doubt as not all art historians agree that the three are part of one whole, especially when it comes to the head of Saint Catherine. Let us look more closely at the Lisbon painting, Head of Female Saint (St Catherine?). Look carefully at the background and the window opening behind her and that of the one shown in the background of the Magdalen Reading painting. They are different in design, one is plain and one is bevelled and this to some art historians, such as Martin Davies, who wrote about the painting in his work Rogier van der Weyden’s Magdalen Reading and John Ward, who wrote an article about the painting entitled A Proposed Reconstruction of an Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden in the Art Bulletin (vol. 53, 1971. 27–35), means that Head of the Female Saint was not part of the original work.
Notwithstanding whether I believe the three paintings once formed part of one original work, I only wish I could have seen the work as a whole before it was split up.