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Jean Bourdichon (c. 1457–1521) surely could have taken his place in the Pantheon of the ten greatest French painters, but alas, his works did not withstand the injuries of time. To the point where, for lack of remaining works to be seen, he fell into almost complete oblivion.
Indeed, the only surviving great work that can be attributed to him with certainty is a sumptuous manuscript decorated with miniatures, Les Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany, Queen of France, which he finished around 1508. The cover of this month’s issue of Magnificat reproduces one of the illustrations of this masterpiece of the art of illumination.
Here, then, as seen by Bourdichon, is the famous scene in which the legionary Martin, in the winter of a.d. 334, gave part of his cloak to a beggar. Sulpicius Severus (363-410?), his biographer, informs us that the following night Christ appeared to him in a dream clothed in that same piece of the cloak.
Saint Martin is depicted as a knight-banneret (one who personally leads his vassals into battle), wearing the armor and the crown, an ornamented circle of gold set with rubies and emeralds. He is clothed in a gold brocaded surcoat, decorated with palm branches to signify his canonization, and a lapis-lazuli doublet with a scroll pattern in gold. “Banneret” was at first a military title won on the battlefields.
Like Saint Martin, whom he depicts in the form of a knight who defends the values of his oath, Bourdichon considered himself a member of the resistance, fighting the good fight with the weapons of his art. Resistance against what? Against the Renaissance and the disenchantment of life that it entailed. In order to understand what was at stake, we should recall that Bourdichon was the official painter of King Francis I, like Leonardo da Vinci, who was active at the same time; their studios near Tours were only about twelve miles apart, and they worked together on occasion. A comparison of their works, however, strikingly shows that they were worlds apart. Vasari says with good reason that Leonardo enabled the West to “put the medieval period behind it, along with its art, which was foreign to nature.” As for Bourdichon, he intended to remain in the Middle Ages and refused to enter into the Renaissance movement, with its new system of depicting the world which leads to a new relation between human beings and their God, between the Christian and his faith.
Saint Martin as a good Samaritan
In order to show the presence of otherworldly, divine influences in this world and human life, Bourdichon does not paint objects and figures in a natural, realistic way, as Leonardo does while giving them a meaning through an elaborate, already mannerist symbolism. Instead, in front of a mythical landscape, he places idealized figures whom he lights up by highlighting their clothing with thin stripes of gold.
This artificial illumination signifies the divine grace that lights up the figure’s life and inspires him to act on earth as another Jesus Christ, carrying out the will of his Father: here by giving a token of love to a poor man. The latter—genuflecting, his hands folded, his eyes heightened with white and turned devoutly toward Saint Martin as though toward heaven—confirms by his posture that it is indeed another Jesus Christ who graciously clothes him with a shared mantle, which itself is presented as being full of grace since it is illuminated, like the donor, with streaks of gold.
It is possible therefore to reflect on this miniature as a manifesto calling for the re-enchantment of our lives with divine grace, and first of all by the grace of the New Commandment, the Christian practice that makes each of us another Jesus Christ for others, whether he performs works of charity or receives them. This is in fact an invitation to imitate Saint Martin and the poor man, by making the parable of the Good Samaritan come true in our lives, a parable in which our Lord is at the same time the one who is saved by the one who saves—You did it to me (Mt 25:40) and the one who saves for the one who is saved—Besides me there is no Savior (Hos 13:4).
Saint Martin sharing his cloak with a poor man, illumination from Les Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany, Latin 9474 Fol. 189v, Jean Bourdichon (c. 1457–1521), BnF, Paris. © BnF, Dist. RMN-GP / image BnF.
When considering Catholic art, one may be tempted to only think of the best-known works by the greatest artists, celebrating the best-known saints. Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy, Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas, or a Madonna and Child by Raphael may come to mind. While this is understandable, it means that we often overlook many other artworks by less famous artists, depicting forgotten saints and martyrs. At the start of the month of November, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of All Saints. On this day, Christians rejoice in the glory of the whole heavenly host, of those saints who are well known and those who have passed into near-legend. Early Church martyrs, whom we know little about, are often depicted in painting, and often have a local devotion that can remain to the present day. One such painting is The Glory of Saint Vitalis by Vittore Carpaccio.
Vittore Carpaccio was born in the 1460s in Venice and studied painting under Gentile Bellini. His work is often characterized by the use of perspective, with a keen attention to architectural detail. He painted many large altarpieces for churches in Venice, among them The Glory of Saint Vitalis painted for the church of Saint Vitalis in 1514.
Not much is known about the painting’s subject. He seems to have been a wealthy resident of Milan during the 1st or 2nd century. A soldier assigned to accompany the judge Paulinus, he was tortured on the rack and then buried alive when Paulinus discovered that he was a Christian. He died in Ravenna, and he remains the principal patron of that city to this day.
In Carpaccio’s altarpiece, we see the saint sitting on a horse squarely in the lower center, holding a soldier’s axe, symbolizing his martial position during life. He is accompanied by a host of figures arranged in three tiers. On the top tier, in the sky, we see the Blessed Mother and the Child Jesus seated in heaven, looking down favorably on Vitalis, as well as the others, and surrounded by putti, who are painted in red to signify their rank as seraphim.
On the second tier, four saints—all of whom are likewise martyrs—stand on an arched bridge, gazing up at the Madonna. This group is separated from the foreground and background by Carpaccio’s typical use of detailed architecture, slicing across the composition. On the left, Saint Andrew holds the cross of Christ, while Saint Peter stands on the far right. Saints Gervaise and Protasius, Vitalis’ sons, hold a palm leaf and a bloodied sword.
On the lowest tier we see the saint himself. On the right, Vitalis’ wife, Saint Valeria, holds another palm leaf, and Saint George a banner. On the left, Saint James is joined by Saint John the Baptist. Throughout the painting, the color red, in all its “earthy” hues, dominates and emphasizes the theme of martyrdom, or the shedding of blood.
The glory of the martyrs
Yet Vitalis himself, framed by the center arch of the bridge, does not himself hold a symbol of martyrdom. Instead he raises his right arm, holding his weapon triumphantly. Why did Carpaccio depict him like this? Shouldn’t he too be somber, clearly showing us the means by which he died? As the title of the work, The Glory of Saint Vitalis, suggests, he is depicted not in his death agony but as a triumphant hero. The soldier holding the banner reinforces this triumphalism. It is an illustration of the glory that is given to the martyrs. The artist shows that by participating in Christ’s own death, the martyrs experience a new beginning, a new creation.
In addition to reinforcing the theme of martyrdom, the various figures and “props” serve to direct the visual movement across the canvas. In order to break up the monotony of the horizontal lines created by the three-tiered structure, Carpaccio creates a web of diagonal movements, using the objects held by all the figures. The most prominent diagonal comes from the cross at the top left, down past Saint Vitalis’ and his horse’s head, ending in the sheathed sword of the soldier in the lower right. It is offset by the movement of the banner leaning toward the right. The palm leaves, swords, and so forth either echo or contrast these movements.
Standing firm with Christ
Saint James, by contrast, holds a pole, perfectly still and vertical. This helps to visually stabilize the diagonal movements, but also represents a theological truth: In the web of spiritual struggle, the saints remain firm and stable. They stand firm on Christ, the spiritual bedrock and source of life for all the martyrs and saints, as well as those of us still struggling on our own spiritual journey. In this way, Carpaccio implies the presence of the whole host of heaven with whom Saint Vitalis is numbered.
Christopher AllesArtist based in New York State who specializes in sacred art.
The Glory of Saint Vitalis (1512), Vittore Carpaccio (c. 1460–c. 1526), San Vidal, Venice, Italy. © Cameraphoto Arte Venezia / Bridgeman Images.