Context and dating
The panel depicting the Assumption of the Virgin, kept in the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, stands out from the English panels examined so far.1 It displays many atypical features, starting with the way in which the iconographic theme has been treated (fig. 41). Mary is not surrounded by the large halo that usually envelops her on English panels, as is the case, within the Aquitaine corpus, with the representations of the Assumption in Saint André Cathedral and the altarpiece of Saint Michel in Bordeaux. This absence of the halo leads to a second feature that is also highly atypical. Instead of raising the mandorla, as they usually do, the angels who are watching the scene are lined up along the side edges of the panel. Emerging from highly stylised clouds, they join their hands in prayer without intervening directly in the scene. The Virgin is carried up to heaven by a ninth angel, of whom only the top of the skull, the wings and the arms are visible, and who has seized her shoe-clad feet. In the lower left corner, St Thomas receives in his clasped hands the belt that Mary has untied from her dress to prove the reality of the miraculous event. Contrary to iconographic tradition, the apostle is not shown barefoot, but wearing pointed shoes.
In the absence of English panels with a similar iconography – the standardisation of compositions however being one of the outstanding features of alabaster – one might almost wonder whether the Bordeaux Assumption really belongs to the artistic production from across the Channel. Certain features, however, such as the summary treatment of the eyes forming globular protuberances, or the motif of the angel lifting the Virgin, are so specific to Midland alabasters that there is little room for doubt.2
The panel is not only atypical from an iconographic point of view, but also, as we shall see, with regard to its polychromy. As a consequence, it should be noted that this atypical character hinders the possibility of reconstructing the missing parts based on comparisons and obliges us to observe and analyse the preserved polychrome remnants in greater detail. When there is a great deal of material missing, the interpretation and reconstruction of the colours are necessarily weakened. The observations that follow will therefore be more laborious and the results obtained cannot claim to be as reliable as in the case of the other panels of English origin.
Remains of the polychromy
In the lower part of the panel, the Assumption still shows some traces of green paint and the usual white and red flowers, although they have deteriorated considerably (fig. 16). As this area has not been painted with any other colours or motifs, it is reasonable to assume that it was painted in monochrome green and animated with the usual pattern of ‘daisy’ florets. Several of these florets are preserved below the elbow of the lower right angel, which makes it possible to restore the density of the pattern, i.e. the spacing between two neighbouring daisies. In the absence of explicit colour traces, of any break in plane or incision, the lower and upper limits of this ‘flower meadow’ are however difficult to determine. For example, it is not certain that the green area extended forwards on the projection of the plinth, to the left and right of the angel lifting the Virgin.
The backgrounds of the upper part of the panel were gilded. Only the upper register shows the characteristic circular losses caused by the accidental detachment of the gesso nodules (fig. 43). The backgrounds and the nodules were covered with a layer of lead red, then with a thick brown layer containing a high proportion of red ochre; this serves as an undercoat for the gilding. In this same upper register, a very small bright red area (cinnabar; fig. 43) appears. This is probably a remnant of the nimbus of the Virgin, as indicated by the inclination and distance of this zone from her head, as well as by the fact that this remnant is bordered on the outside by the gilding (on the left side, towards the head, any traces of paint have disappeared). As is the case with most of the nimbuses of the Virgin on English panels, the halo on the Bordeaux Assumption was therefore red in colour and large in size (fig. 26). Since the nimbuses of English alabasters are not monochrome, but systematically provided with ornaments, such as lobes or rays painted in white, these elements have been added to the reconstruction – though without any material traces being preserved.3
The middle registers of the panel were also gilded. The absence of circular ‘holes’ in the gilded areas leads one to believe that they did not contain any nodules. However, these registers contain curious triangular areas carved into the backdrop. The triangles are not gilded, but painted in red (second register of angels, counting from the bottom) and green (first and third registers) respectively (figs. 44 and 47). These coloured triangles may represent ‘flames’ or rays of light that are meant to emphasise the miraculous nature of the event depicted.4
The bands of stylised clouds that subdivide the gilded background into several registers retain some remnants of gold as well as significant quantities of the thick undercoat of the mixtion of red ochre and oil that serves as a base and adhesive layer for the gilding. These golden clouds are decorated with small red touches that the painter has placed – only? – in the spherical hollows and incised lines that animate them.
The figures on the panel also show an unusual colouring. For example, the eight angels whose busts emerge from the stylised golden clouds have faces with obvious remnants of a pink complexion and red cheeks. The painted facial features (eyes, eyebrows, nostrils, lips) are not preserved, but they must have existed originally. This is suggested by the remnants of red paint on the lips of the Virgin and St Thomas, as well as by the merely drafted shape of the eyes, which require further painting. The hair of the angels is gilded, with gold-leaf applied over the usual thick undercoat. The robes worn by the angels are painted in green (copper resinate) on a yellow ochre undercoat (or lead white mixed with yellowed oil?) in registers 2 and 4, and left blank for those in registers 1 and 3. As with the vestments, the colouring of the angels’ wings alternates from one register to the next. The wings of the pairs in the 1st and 3rd registers show a bright red (cinnabar) polychromy enhanced by white teardrops with black dots. However, the colouring of the wings is not entirely consistent with the usual pattern employed by English painters. The white teardrops with black dots, arranged in registers, alternate with smaller black teardrops, also arranged in registers (fig. 45).5 The wings of the angels in registers 2 and 4 are painted in red ochre.6 This layer of red ochre seems to have been covered with a layer of oil (?), which has now taken on a brown appearance.
St Thomas’s face has small traces of a pink complexion, as well as a mouth painted red. His hair, covered with the red ochre undercoat, reveals tiny traces of gilding. His tunic is painted cinnabar red on the obverse. At the bottom of the tunic, an incision parallel to the border indicates that this piece of clothing was originally decorated with a golden hemline.7 The reverse of the coat was also painted bright red (cinnabar). His shoes show minute traces of black.8
The Virgin, who constitutes the main element of the panel and is much larger than the other figures, has a pink complexion, the remains of which can be seen on both her face and hands; her cheekbones are highlighted with a fairly bright red tone (fig. 46). The gilding of her hair is well preserved near her neck and on her left shoulder. The crown also contains remnants of gilding and large areas of red ochre paint that served as an undercoat to the gold-leaf.9 The Virgin’s robe is of a cinnabar red colour, which is still clearly visible near the feet, and is decorated with a wide golden edging. Incisions preserved on the mantle, parallel to the hems, show that the borders adorned both the obverse and reverse sides of the mantle. The mantle is white (alabaster) on the obverse and painted in yellow ochre on the reverse. The belt of the Virgin has a buckle that is clearly visible and gilded. The cord, on the other hand, shows only relatively large traces of the thick red ochre undercoat, so it was most certainly gilded. Small traces of intense red appear on the Virgin’s shoes.In contrast to the eight other angels on the side edges of the panel, the angel lifting the Virgin into the heavens appears to have been very largely gilded. There are clear traces of this gilding on the top of the head, i.e. on the hair, and on the two wings. It is more difficult to confirm the initial colouring of the robe and hands: while the right arm is completely lost, the left arm is devoid of any traces of colour.
The base of the panel shows a more complex arrangement than most other English panels. It consists of three superimposed registers, at least two of which were originally decorated. The upper register shows a decoration that recalls the bands of clouds that punctuate the golden backdrop of the Assumption. In contrast to these clouds, however, this register of the base is not gilded, but appears to have been painted in green on a yellow ochre (?) undercoat. As is the case in the upper parts, the round incisions and indentations of the plinth were apparently underlined with bright red paint, as suggested by the few traces of this colour preserved in these areas (fig. 47).
The middle register of the base is decorated with sawtooths. The sawtooths in the upper row are gilded. The gilding probably also covered the lower row, unless the gold fragments in this area are due to a lack of precision on the part of the painter. The lower row also retains traces of green, and each indentation is further decorated with a floret consisting of five white dots and a central red dot. The decoration seems to have extended to the left between Thomas’s feet, as this area still shows fragmentary ‘daisies’. Judging from the few remains of the thick brown undercoat, the lower register of the base was gilded.
An ancient decorative scheme?
The polychromy of the Assumption in the Musée d’Aquitaine thus shows both strong affinities with the practices usually employed by English painters, but also a significant number of specific features that have little or no equivalent in the vast production of alabaster. Among the usual pictorial principles that the painter of the Bordeaux panel also applied, we can mention the high saturation of the colours as well as the limitation of their range, which is even more pronounced than on other panels. In addition to the white of the alabaster and the golden yellow of the gilding, the painter used mainly cinnabar red, green copper resinate and yellow ochre; small areas of red ochre and small touches of white and black appear also. As with other English panels, each surface was usually covered with a single background colour (which could be overlaid with motifs painted in another colour). Adjoining surfaces have very different chromatic values; typically, a ‘dark’ colour adjoins or overlaps a ‘clear’ colour. As usual, the main features of the face have been enhanced with paint. The backgrounds of the upper part are gilded, those of the lower part are painted green and strewn with flowers.
Unusual features include the characters’ pink, rather than white, complexions, although these are positive characters. The painting of the obverse of the garments is also unusual. While the Virgin and Thomas wear red garments, four of the eight angels are dressed in green robes. The angels’ garments do not have gold edges, not even along the neckline. The hemlines on the tunics of the Virgin and Thomas, on the other hand, are unusually broad. Thomas’s red robe is covered by a similarly red-lined cloak; this direct superimposition of two layers of the same colour creates a risk of visual confusion between the two vestments that painters of other panels carefully avoided. The reverse of the Virgin’s cloak is painted with yellow ochre, a pigment that does not seem to have been selected elsewhere for colouring clothes. Moreover, the painter of the Assumption apparently made a mistake in applying this colour, as he painted a piece of cloth that is part of the obverse of the cloak, contrary to the usual practice, while leaving two other pieces of cloth belonging to the lining blank; this probable error, visible near the Virgin’s right leg, has been reproduced on the polychrome reconstruction of the panel (fig. 47). Sometimes the painter used colours, especially red and green, on a gilded background; although it also exists on the panels preserved in Libourne, this procedure has rarely been used on other English panels. Finally, the gilding on the Bordeaux panel was applied on a particularly thick undercoat of red ochre, which we have not encountered elsewhere.
In the present state of our knowledge, the atypical character of the Bordeaux Assumption is probably explained by the work’s undoubtedly early date. Jacques Gardelles has proposed a date of around 1340-1380 for this panel, although this is based on criteria that are debatable.10 In any case, the relatively low relief that characterises the Bordeaux panel is reminiscent of the plastic treatment of other early English alabasters. Like the sculptor of the Bordeaux Assumption, for example, the author of the Kettlebaston panels or of the Passion altarpiece from the late fourteenth century (V&A Museum, London) did not detach the limbs of the figures or the objects they are handling from the background. Their colleagues working in the fifteenth century, on the other hand, frequently resorted to this virtuous kind of sculpture worked almost in the round. As for the polychromy, several clues also seem to support this early dating. For example, the chromatic chord of the four colours red, gold, green and white is frequently found on alabaster panels generally considered to be the oldest – although the polychromy is often poorly preserved. Nevertheless, we should mention the reliefs from Kettlebaston, preserved in the British Museum,11 as well as several Annunciations and The Annunciation with the Trinity (c. 1400), all of which are preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London;12 the Munkaꝥverá altarpiece, which is slightly later, bears witness to the predilection for these same colours (fig. 48).13 Moreover, the earliest literary works in the vernacular, such as the Lais of Marie de France (late twelfth century), make use of this same restricted range of colours.14 The predilection for white, gold, red and green is accompanied by the absence of the colours blue, purple and grey, which are quite common in fifteenth and sixteenth century panels.
Pink skin tones, on the other hand, should perhaps be interpreted as reflecting an earlier ideal of beauty, which only later evolved into a
predilection for perfectly white skin.15 This mutation can indeed be observed in French ivories of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Coronation of the Virgin in the Louvre (third quarter of the thirteenth century), for example, features Christ, the Virgin and angels with pink complexions, whereas the figures in ivories generally attributed to fourteenth-century Parisian workshops have immaculate ivory-coloured skin.16 If this development can be transposed to the field of English alabaster, the Bordeaux panel should be considered a rare witness to the earlier mode of representation.Finally, some early panels, such as those from Kettlebaston, show, like the Bordeaux Assumption, painted obverse sides of garments.17 This is true of the Virgin’s cloak, which is gilded and speckled with small black motifs on the three panels.18 These few considerations, which should be supported by more in-depth studies, lead us to suggest that the standardised colouring of alabasters was not acquired from the beginning of their production in the fourteenth century, but that it was gradually imposed, perhaps at the end of that century.
- Inv. no. 11775. The provenance of this panel, which entered the museum’s collections as a legacy in 1887, is unknown. The panel, currently in the museum’s storerooms, is broken into seven pieces; it was reassembled and glued to a stone support probably in the 1960s.
- For similar angels lifting the Virgin, see for example the Assumptions Cl 19 333 and Cl 19 341 in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, as well as the one in the La Selle altarpiece (Évreux, Musée d’art, histoire et archéologie).
- The design in white is inspired by the red nimbus of the Virgin on the panel of the Adoration of the Magi in Lormont (Gironde) and that of the small individual altarpiece superimposing the Annunciation and a Throne of Mercy, preserved in the V&A Museum in London. The latter, in particular, is one of the earliest well-preserved examples, and may thus be close to the archaic panel in Bordeaux’s Musée d’Aquitaine.
- In view of the presence of these polychrome remains, but also of the careful elaboration of these triangular fields, they cannot be traces of the tearing off of a mandorla, as proposed by Gardelles 1976, 201.
- This manner of painting the angel’s wings, which to our knowledge is very rare, can be found on one of the panels of the altarpiece dedicated to St Catherine in Vejrum (Denmark), namely the one representing her funeral.
- Some irregularly shaped whitish lines, difficult to interpret, appear on some of these wings.
- The incisions parallel to the borders of the garments, obviously intended to determine the width of the gilded borders, are quite common in English sculpture. Among the Aquitaine corpus, the panels of Avensan, Génissac, Saint Michel of Bordeaux and the Assumption of Bordeaux Cathedral show them alike.
- It is a dark colour that we have not been able to identify. As far as we know, however, all the characters on English alabaster panels have either red (cinnabar) or black (carbon black) shoes.
- The top of the head, which can be seen through the circular opening in the crown, is painted in the orange tone of lead red, which, like the red ochre, may have served as a preparation for the gilding. By the way, the red-brown undercoat of the crown also covers its finials, which take the form of triplets of large pearls. On other English panels, however, these triplets often appear to be white in colour (alabaster). This is the case with the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi in the altarpiece of Saint Michel in Bordeaux, the Annunciation in the altarpiece of Saint Nicolas du Bosc, an Annunciation in the Burrell Collection in Glasgow and the Adoration of the Magi in the Ávila Cathedral Museum.
- Gardelles 1976, 201.
- The medieval polychromy of these alabasters has recently been analysed and reconstructed by Pereira-Pardo et al. 2018. See also De Beer 2018, 115-116.
- Annunciation with the Trinity in a wooden case, inv. no. A.193-1946.
- National Museum of Copenhagen; the presence of battlemented canopies at the top of the narrative panels has led scholars to place this altarpiece in the period between 1380 and 1420.
- See Paupert-Bouchez 1988, § 2: “Apart from green, which only appears in Guignemar, and the ‘bis’ [grey-beige] of a stoop, wall or tower, gold, white and red, with two different varieties, purple and vermeil, are the only colours mentioned by Marie de France. […] This choice of colours is not unique […]. It has many echoes in other contemporary texts…” [trans. is ours].
- According to Pastré 1988, § 6, for example, “cette éclatante blancheur du teint […] est une caractéristique essentielle de la beauté et du plaisir visuel au Moyen Âge.” [this radiant whiteness of complexion […] is an essential characteristic of beauty and visual pleasure in the Middle Ages]. This evolution of the ideal of beauty varies from one country to another. While French authors favour pure whiteness of the complexion, the red colour of the cheeks superimposed on the white complexion regularly characterises the portraits of beautiful ladies in German authors (ibid.).
- Coronation of the Virgin: Paris, Louvre Museum, inv. no. OA 58-3921 and 3922.
- The Flagellation in the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux also shows characters wearing cloths painted on their obverse side: while the executioner on the lower right is wearing red shoes and a blue-green pourpoint, his companion on the upper right is wearing a red houppelande held in place by a golden belt.
- Pereira-Pardo et al. 2018, 10-11, fig. 2 and fig. 6c.