Medieval Meets Modern
At the National Gallery, A New World Shows Its Faces

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.

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You can tell just from its quality that Sittow's diptych must have cost a lot.

In the Netherlands, the art market was sharply regulated. Only members of the painters guild (and artists paid for membership) could declare themselves professionals and open public shops.

There were outdoor markets, too. Of these, the most important may have been the Pand in Antwerp, which, after 1460, ran for a full century, was open every Friday and rented artists space in stalls. Many kinds of diptychs must have been for sale. Some of these (for instance, those depicting Jesus on one leaf and Mary on the other) must have come devotion-ready. Others, more like Sittow's, must have come half-finished, with the right-hand leaf prepared for the buyer's praying portrait intentionally left blank.

It was an international business. Sittow preferred painting on imported oak. The wood came from the Baltic. So, too, did the artist, who, though he traveled across Europe and served the court in Spain, had been born in Estonia on the shores of that cold sea. In capitalistic Antwerp, luxuries were commonplace. Some of the ones seen in the diptychs (oranges from Valencia, carpets from the Caucasus, those rich Italian silks) had been imported from afar, but many of the others (sheer linens and thick velvets, fine wrought-iron andirons, eyeglasses and mirrors) had been locally produced. These paintings place you there.

The iron hinges can't help but make you think of opening and closings. And it isn't just the hardware. The entire exhibition feels hinged in various ways.

Its early oils link the medieval to the modern. The scale of its art is halfway between that of the prayer book and that of a painting on the wall. The theology suggested -- mostly Roman Catholic but partly Protestant -- feels distinctly two-way, as well.

The sharp folds of the Virgin's robe may suggest the cut-stone churches of the Gothic Middle Ages, but the diptych doesn't take you backward as much as it foreshadows what is yet to come.

What is most modern in Sittow's diptych is his unconcealed confidence in detailed verisimilitude. He's intent on observation. When Sittow paints the Virgin's eye, he depicts each separate eyelash. He's similarly concerned with the way that Don Diego's beard grows. And he wants you to feel textures -- the softness of the fur, the stiffness of the gold brocade, the nap of the wool rug.

Everywhere you look you see the painter striving for ever finer detail. Sittow's art is focused. You could call the technique photographic -- if it hadn't been devised centuries before there was such a thing as photography. The product he was selling was high-tech and high-def. The lenses of our cameras keep on getting sharper. In Sittow's still-remarkable visual attentiveness, our 21st-century hunger for a few more gazillion pixels is already on its way.

Also coming at you, or so it seems to me, is something of the spirit of new Protestant theology. Martin Luther and his successors disagreed on much and shared no single dogma, but most agreed on this: that Christians ought to read Scripture, and that, in seeking God, they did not need the intercessions of the Roman Catholic Church with its bishops and popes and multitude of saints. This kind of Reformation thinking, or something very like it, can be sensed in Sittow's art.

Mary isn't draped in jewels, her baby wears no halo, no angels hover overhead, no saints float on white clouds. When you enter Sittow's diptych, you're not in that world, you're in your own.

Luther translated the Bible into German, John Calvin translated it into French. William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale rendered it in English. The holy words of God could now be read in the vernacular. There's a similar sort of impulse in Sittow's kind of art. The holy in his diptych is not only seen in the figures on the left. It's there in every detail, in the lynx fur and the lace, in Don Diego's pensiveness and the gestures of his hand. What you're shown is God's own Truth, and no Latin education, or priestly intercession, is required to receive it. This is Truth in the vernacular, Truth told in a language everyone can read.

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