Medieval Meets Modern

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 13, 2006

An intricate example of the hinge paintings on view in "Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych" at the National Gallery of Art is this one by Michel Sittow. It's an expensive apparatus for intimate devotion, just over a foot high. Sittow painted it in Flanders, circa 1515. This is how it worked.

Or how it used to work, before its iron hinges were undone and its pieces disconnected many centuries ago.

You'd take the diptych from its shelf, unlatch its wooden leaves and set it before you, upright on the table like a partly opened book. Then you'd fall to your knees and pray.

The 37 Christian diptychs on display in the West Building come from 31 lending institutions and are seldom shown together, so see them while you can. "Prayers and Portraits" is a great show for Christmas. It's a great show, period.

Though once in high demand in Spanish and French palaces, the courtly painter Sittow isn't famous any more, isn't a celebrity, so the crowds in "Prayers and Portraits" will probably be bearable. Sittow isn't a Vermeer. But if you want to understand Vermeer's amazing stillness, this is where it came from. Video and photography today may have supplanted painting with oil paints and glazes, but oil painting has had a great run in art history, and here you're near its start.

The Sittow is one object but two pictures. The one on the left, the Virgin and the babe, belongs to the State Museum in Berlin; the one on the right, the diplomat, was a gift from Andrew Mellon to the National Gallery. They're obviously a pair. The Madonna sets her child, and the diplomat sets his gold-ringed hand, on the same Caucasian rug. "Cause for celebration" is how the catalogue describes their reunification here.

The paintings are on oak. How far you open them matters. When the angle is just right (you can test this if you cut their pictures from the paper), baby Jesus and the praying man meet each other's gaze.

Dying is implied by the posture of the baby, and by the way the light of life is dying in his eyes, and by the goldfinch in his hand, another painted sign of the soul's departure. His mother apprehends the sacrifice to come. The diplomat portrayed -- his name is Don Diego de Guevara -- meditates on these mysteries.

We know a bit about him. Don Diego, a Spaniard, served for 20 years in Flanders while his country ruled the Netherlands.

He was obviously a person of exquisite tact and taste. He would not have gone to England on diplomatic missions, or supervised the court of Philip the Fair, had he not been tactful. We know he had fine taste, and not only because he hired Sittow. Don Diego also owned another awesome picture (the famous "Arnolfini Wedding" by Jan van Eyck, now in the National Gallery in London). And just look how he's dressed.

His fur is lynx, a spotted fur so soft and fine that its hairs part when you breathe on them. Flowering thistles are enameled on its golden buttons. His jacket is of stiff brocade, its threads are wound in gold. His shirt is linen. The lace of its collar is a bas-relief made of brush strokes of white paint.

Oil painting has, of course, changed a lot in the past 500 years. But it's just changed, it hasn't got better. The best pictures in this show -- by Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Rogier van der Weyden and Sittow-- are about as good as painting ever gets.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company