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Facing Your Faith

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Netherlandish Diptych' Highlights Little-Known Companion Religious Portraits

Before digital Bibles, online prayer calendars and pocket devotional guides, there was the diptych, a set of mostly religious paintings created on two hinged wooden panels that opened and closed like a book for convenient storage or travel.

If you were important and wealthy enough in 15th- or 16th-century Flanders or Burgundy, you might have a diptych of your own, with your familiar mug on one inside panel and the Virgin Mary and Christ child on the other, staring across at you with a knowing look. After all, you wanted to be known and counted among the faithful if you conducted your business or politics in the Low Countries—areas that constitute present-day Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and France.

A new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art focuses attention on this little-known art form that was widely practiced five centuries ago. “Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych” brings 89 paintings and 37 complete diptychs together, some of whose panels have been separated since Michelangelo was a toddler. The result is a fascinating glimpse into the devotional habits, social strata and masterful small portraiture techniques of late medieval and early renaissance Northern Europe.

Many of the masters of this period are represented in the exhibit: Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling, Gerard David and Quentin Massys. There are also delights by lesser-known artists such as Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen and Ambrosius Benson.

Although the attribution for most of the paintings in the exhibit is fairly certain, determining which of the separated and unframed works originally formed a diptych is difficult. An enjoyable exercise is to compare some of the existing diptychs with unframed paintings nearby and imagine what the missing portraits might have looked like. Another proud burgher in his silken robes, humbling himself like a penitent? Or another Virgin fixed on the Christ child moving dangerously close to the edge of her lap? Diptychs and their individual parts hold mysteries beyond faith alone.

An early master of the diptych was Rogier van der Weyden, whose companion portraits “Virgin and Child” and “Philippe de Croy” (circa 1460) reflect the starkness of the diptych early style, influenced by a new taste for intense private devotion within the home. De Croy, the scion of a powerful Netherlandish family, appears before a black background in the right-hand panel. Looking every bit the pious, young aristocrat, his hands are folded in prayer around a rosary and his eyes cast toward the Virgin in the opposite panel. There, Mary’s slightly down-turned gaze seems to catch de Croy’s, and for a moment, one imagines the soldier-politician entering the rarified, golden-hued space of the holy family. Later diptych artists would create this illusion more directly by linking the sightlines of the donor or patron in one panel with those of the Virgin or child in the other when the diptych was opened to the right angle.

A generation after van der Weyden, Hans Memling added warmth and domesticity to the diptych tradition. The companion panels “Maarten van Nieuwenhove” and “Virgin and Child” show the figures to inhabit the same space—a room in the young van Nieuwenhove’s house. A mirror captures van Nieuwenhove’s profile behind the Virgin Mary and child in the left panel, while the rich tapestry at the baby’s feet extends into the right panel, where the young government official assumes an attitude of prayer. The warm colors, strong architectural lines and distant landscapes in each picture offer a strong contrast to van der Weyden’s darker, more generalized atmosphere.

One of the more moving diptychs in this exhibit is Michael Sittow’s companion pieces “Virgin and Child” (from Berlin) and “Diego de Guevara” (from the National Gallery of Art), which have been reunited in this show. On the left-hand panel, the Christ child gently brushes his mother’s chin with one hand while holding a goldfinch (a symbol of suffering) in the other. The tender exchange appears to elicit deep emotions from the Spanish diplomat opposite, whose saddened eyes meet those of the child, and whose hand clasps one end of the parapet on which the child reclines. Viewers who have studied “Diego de Guevara” at the National Gallery before will find another layer of richness and beauty in this added new context.

Gradually, with the explosion of commerce and trade in the Low Countries, the subject matter of diptychs moved from the exclusively religious to the secular. Bernard de Rijckere’s companion portraits of a prosperous Antwerp merchant’s family—“Adriaan van Santvoort and His Sons Guillaume and Adriaan” and “Anna van Hertsbeeke and Her Daughter Catharina and Son Jan Baptiste”—are among the latest works in the exhibit. The stern and assured parents, Adriaan and Anna, take the place of medieval saints—their tough-minded approach to the here and now subsuming medieval obsessions with the hereafter. Their no-nonsense demeanor and simple black garb remind us of the great political and religious changes that have taken place since Sittow created his moving portraits at the beginning of the 16th century. Indicative of the decline of the diptych art form itself, these portraits of Adriaan van Santvoort and his family were eventually unhinged and hung separately on a wall as pendants.

The simple intimacy of the best of the Netherlandish diptychs was eventually replaced by bigger, more ideologically rigid altarpieces and secular portraiture. It would be a while before artists in the Low Countries rediscovered the delight in small details and quiet gestures. Nevertheless, in today’s hectic rush of modern life, “Prayers and Portraits” reminds us of a time when silence was often golden.

Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding The Netherlandish Diptych through Feb. 4 National Gallery of Art on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW. For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.

About the Author

Deryl Davis is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on April 7, 2011