This is a diptych, known as the Melun Diptych, painted in 1450 by Jean Fouquet.
It has as its subject Étienne Chevalier, in red, who was, apparently, a civil servant to the French kings Charles VII and Louis XI. He lived from 1410 to 1474.
Next to him, in the blue robe, stands his patron saint, Stephen.
On the right we see the Virgin Mary, with the baby Jesus in her lap, and surrounding them, a group of red and blue angels.
Starting at the left, as if reading a page–
I take all that back.
Forget everything you ever knew about the Melun Diptych.
We will start in the bottom left corner of the painting of the Madonna and Child on the right.
Look closely before you read even a word more. Not a — Did you look already? Thank you. Then, like me, you are already in a condition of dislocation, rupture, a state of quivering uncertainty, sensing, far off and approaching, a feeling not unlike awe.
We have been o’erthrown, exiled from our ordinary opinions… down, down we fall, turning as we do… We are seeing everything sideways now….
Here he is, our red angel.
He stands before us, as he stands beside the throne-like chair that holds the Virgin and Child. He gazes at them, humbly, with downcast eyes. But look closely, again dear reader, at his glossy buttock… Look at those two horizontal lines, those thick folds in his fleshy left thigh. Look at the way that the light source — from whence it shines we do not know, heavenly light! — look at the way it is reflected in his shiny skin, on his hip, on his shoulder; how it takes the form of a white chalky texture. Look again at the three folds on the side of his neck, his frizzled hair, his high forehead, the way that he purses his lips with a kind of knowing disdain at something he sees. He is impossibly strange. He is completely new.
Why are these red angels gripping onto this throne? Would it fall if they let it go? Why are some blue and some red? What is the cause of their displeasure? — for it is clear that they are displeased with something. They gaze placidly at the Virgin Mary, but with exactly the expressions one sees, passing in quick succession, over the face of someone who has just swallowed his own bile, having spit up a little in his mouth, and who is hoping no one has noticed.
Only one of these angels seems to be truly attentive. He is the red one standing directly behind the Son of God. He appears to be in a kind of breathless, I-can’t-believe-that-this-is-happening state that we associate with having just successfully made it past Security into the V.I.P. backstage area at a rock concert.
Which brings us to the rock stars themselves: Mother and Child.
Oh, god, that breast. That left breast. Of course it is for nursing. What are you thinking, Tom? It is filled with milk to nourish baby Jesus. Why am I having to remind myself of this? Isn’t the maternal nature of this scene obvious?
The truth is that I can’t stay with that way of looking at this painting for more than 2 seconds at a time, maybe 4 with willful, teeth-grinding effort. I look for evidence of a milk-delivery-systyem, of nourishment, of the spiritual solace of a mother’s love for her child, and I see it, I do, for a flashing moment and then it happens: my eyes fixate on that left breast. Testosterone in my body makes norepinephrine release in my brain, which shakes my amygdala awake, which sends electrical signals firing through a vast array of neurological linkages leading to neurons that fire with images of… tumescent breast… tumescent cock… white skin… fine hairs… pink nipples… pink labial folds… a clitoris in its delicate hood… gasps… groans… sex, sex, sex. (See this song by Tim Minchin for another description of the involuntary and inexplicable response that some men have to breasts.)
It’s not just me. Don’t say that! I know, this diptych is ostensibly about God and purity and martyrdom (see the rock that St. Stephen holds gingerly on top of his leather-bound book? He was stoned to death, good man). I know, ostensibly it is about a civil servant who showed great devotion to king and country and its divine mandate. But the truth is, it is not about any of that, or only partly.
It is about this overwhelming, beautiful Virgin, with her oddly placed, round breasts, tumescent with desire, calling out for someone, somewhere, in France, in 1450, in Jerusalem, in 33 B.C., in California, in 2012 — the call is timeless — to take her, ravish her, make her his, hers, theirs, ours.
Notice how she is lifting her white silk robe, gently, with her right hand. Notice how she is willing. Notice how she has unlaced her bodice herself already. How she looks down, somewhere below her waist. And see the baby Jesus. The center of his body, the forced focal point for our attention when we gaze at him, is his little button of a penis. One hand, his right, gestures towards it. The other, his left, points back to the fulcrum of the larger painting, the point of no return, L’Origine du monde, the Vagina of the Virgin.
The message of this painting? Someone must impregnate this woman! God has done it, but he has done it immaculately. It won’t stand. It hasn’t satisfied anyone. Something more must be done, and it must be done by you dear patron, you respected civil servant, you dear viewer, you dear reader, you, a wily, nervous, sweating, addled, prideful, boastful, hairy, vital, strong, trembling man… or woman, for that matter.
The blue and red angels, they get it. Why they are blue? They need oxygen, I don’t know. Why they are red? You don’t even need to ask that one. Red as blood. Red as life. Under her white shiny skin, her impossible dome of a forehead, she is lush, red, fragrant, life. She wants us to know that she is that red.
So now that we have cracked the code of the second panel, the first falls easily into place.
One, M. Chevalier, trying to act nonchalant. He knows that he has earned this, whatever Heaven has in store for him. He has worked his ass off, after all. Nobody can say he hasn’t… Endless diplomacy, frequent visits to foreign courts, all those issues with the coin of the realm, fixing the accounts, hiring and firing so many in so many offices… Goddammit just dealing with the “moods” of his sovereign on a daily basis, jesus, he has done it and done it more than anyone could have expected of him.
He has a long nose, and that has tormented him, but the hard work he has done has made feel he has earned that prominent proboscis too. He doesn’t have to apologize to anyone. No one — NO ONE — can question his worthiness, and this painter he has commissioned for this project, this… what’s his name?… Jean Fourquet, has captured that well.
The other man, saint Stephen, is a looser character, more dangerous. He hasn’t had as much worldly experience, sure. But he likes what he likes. He’s a stubborn guy when you try to push him where he doesn’t want to go. His hand rests on the shoulder of Étienne Chevalier, as if to say: come on, this is what we are entitled to here, don’t be shy. You and I, my friend, we get to take our place at the side of God here. They even want us to. It’s worked out. Everything will be fine.
Perhaps I should draw backwards a bit — God’s eye view, if you will.
There are two main drives behind the actions of all human beings in this world, right?
1. Sexual (with the unconscious but hard-wired aim of replicating our DNA, although sometimes taking forms that do not achieve this), and
2. Social (with the unconscious but hard-wired aim of increasing the quality of the DNA of our offspring, as well as the resources available to them).
The religious traditions are the central means by which drive #2, the social drive, has made itself known for many thousands of years. These traditions are, all of them, complete bullshit, of course. (Please. If you resist this then just substitute “Zeus” for any mention you ever make of your particular “God” and see how this changes NOTHING of consequence except your association of profundity). But this bullshit is effective. And from pre-history to the Bronze Age to the Modern Era, it has had, as its main intent, the organization of the tribe, the larger society, the in-group, into a more efficient and rule-bound whole.
So, as I say, religion is mostly concerned with the #2 drive mentioned above.
Yet drive #1 cannot but infiltrate the religious traditions. Just as it infiltrates so many of our thoughts every day. It is truly promiscuous. And the Malun Diptych is a perfect example of the high-minded, the austere, the god-worshiping being infiltrated, corrupted, saturated, irresistibly, by the urge to do it.
So much of art is. We are teetering on this edge all the time.
If we allow ourselves to tumble over then we create mere trash, vulgarity, pornography. Jeff Koons explores this fallen state in some of his work (see his Made in Heaven series), as do so many contemporary performance artists, such as the legendary Marina Abramović. And this work can be effective.
But if we stay up on the edge, if we resist falling, if we alternate, rapidly, between drive #1 and drive #2, if we decoy and shield, deflect and maneuver, obfuscate and elaborate, then, I would argue, we are able to light up the brain with its full limbic potential, and we feel the arrival of awe, directed not merely to sex, not merely to our pudendum, not merely to mucus membranes and throbs of pleasure, but out, out, to the larger world as well, the fascinating world of people and ideas and hopes and other minds and potential metamorphoses.
This is what Jean Fouquet has achieved. This is why this is a truly great work. Because the left breast of the Madonna in this painting makes us see through our desire to our own humanity, laid bare, in all its astonishing richness.