Peek at a Painting: The oldest example in Polesden's collection

a section of an early fourteenth-century triptych, depicting the Virgin and Child enthroned by Saints

It's time again to delve deeper into the life and history of one of our paintings, in preparation for my next research talk for our volunteers at the end of this month, which I'm calling 'Peek at a Painting'. Come with me, on a journey back to the fourteenth century.

Research talks: peek at a painting

I started by peeking at Carolus-Duran's Mrs Greville back in March.  Click here to see my earlier blog post about the first of my Research Talks.    

The oldest painting at Polesden

For my second research talk I'm peeking at the oldest painting in our collection, an Italo-Byzantine triptych painted in the early fourteenth century, which depicts the virgin and child enthroned with saints.  

That description of this fabulous painting 'Italo-Byzantine' doesn't nearly do it justice, but the artist - as is so often the case with medieval art - is unknown to us. So we have to be content with placing it under the vague authorship of the 'Byzantine', ‘Venetian' or ‘Neapolitan' Schools.  

Whether this helps or hinders our understanding of this painting's meaning is a question to be discussed once you know a bit more about this fascinating triptych.  So, let's jump in...  

So what exactly is a triptych?

In case we're not exactly sure what a 'triptych' is, the clue is in the name.  It's a painting, made up of three parts (tri = three), which often folds in over its central panel and sits in a church as an altar-piece.    

So, these three panels were hinged in a way that allowed much more movement and mobile viewing than your average painting.  Decoration or further painting was often on both sides of the outside panels, to depict a different scene when the two doors were closed.  

The Virgin and Child centre stage
Central panel of early fourteenth-century triptych

In light of this, we must look at a triptych in the way we'd look at a three-dimensional piece of sculpture, taking in all of its angles, rather than just the one flat surface of a painting.


What’s the story?

Well, as was again so often the case in western medieval art, the story depicted on our triptych is rooted in scenes from the Bible. We've got the crucifixion, the annunciation, the apocalyptic symbols of the four evangelists, a host of male and female saints, and even four angels crowding around the virgin and child enthroned in the centre. It's quite a lot to take in, isn't it!    

A moving depiction of the Crucifixion
Section of early fourteenth-century triptych, depicting the Crucifixion.

A modern day viewer may struggle to recall some of the lesser known saints and religious scenes covering these panels. But we must remember that to a religiously-centric medieval society, these images would have been as familiar to them as the famed personalities of today are to us.  

Archangel Michael between Saints Cosmas and Damian, under the lion of Saint Mark
Small section of early fourteenth-century triptych depicting Archangel Michael between Saints Cosmas and Damian, under the lion of Saint Mark

Paint made with eggs?

The other thing that is as unfamiliar to us nowadays as some of these saints, is the type of paint used for this triptych. Oil paints or watercolours we're all familiar with, but this triptych is painted with egg tempera (oil paint wasn't invented at this point).    

Egg tempera is a mixture of coloured pigments, egg yolk and some form of mixing agent that stops the paint drying so quickly, like water, wine or vinegar.  

This medium gives paintings of this era a sort of opaque, matt finish – as if they are illustrations in a book or a manuscript - rather than the glossy appearance of later oil paintings.   

Luckily for us, egg tempera paint is also extremely long-lasting and so the vibrant colours of this wonderful triptych are as fresh as the day they were painted in the early fourteenth century.

Author or no author?  That is the question.

So coming back to my original question, what do we think?  Do we need to know exactly who painted a picture in order to fully appreciate its meaning?  Or does it suffice to say that this painting is 'of the Italo-Byzantine school'?  

I personally don't think there's a clear-cut answer either way, but what I do think is important is that we don't underestimate the depth of meaning in medieval art, simply because we don't know enough about it to draw neat and tidy conclusions.  

Art is, after all, subjective and this painting is another example of the perfectly incomplete mysteries in every work of art.    

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