The Louis XII Triptych
The collection of Limoges painted enamels in the Victoria and Albert Museum includes several fine pieces of the early 16th century, but none is quite as magnificent as the triptych executed by an unknown enameller who is called the Master of the Louis XII Triptych after the enamel work discussed here. This was bought from the collection of H. Danby Seymour, M.P., who owned it certainly in 1853 and probably earlier. Its previous history is not known.
Danby Seymour seems to have had a special liking for enamel portraits of French royalty for at the Special Exhibition of 1862 held in this Museum he exhibited six important enamel portraits by Leonard Limosin, the court enameller to Francis I, as well as the Louis XII Triptych.
The Triptych is made up of nine plaques with three principal ones. At the centre is the Annunciation; on the left-hand leaf Louis XII kneels at a prie-dieu, with his patron saint, Saint Louis, standing behind and holding the staff of Justice. On the right-hand leaf is a plaque of Anne of Brittany also shown kneeling, with her patron saint, Saint Anne, standing behind.
These main plaques are bordered with six smaller ones painted at the top with angel musicians, and with worshipping angels on the lower sections. They are held by brass mounts to a wood frame dating from about 1840, and probably made in France.
The technique of champleve enamelling was superseded by painting the enamels, which came into fashion, it is thought, in the 1460s, although the method as used in France may be older; but it is impossible to be definite since nothing remains from the immense devastation of the Hundred Years War.
The first step in the new method was the shaping and roughening of the copper plaques. These were then coated on both sides with enamel waste-generally black on the picture side and blue on the reverse; thus a ground was provided on which the design could be sketched prior to filling in with colour, and enamel was present on the reverse to prevent the plaque distorting when fired. The black ground can be observed on the Triptych in the Annunciation scene and on the portrait plaques. Elsewhere it was revealed when the enameller scratched through the still plastic colour to sharpen the contours of figures and the inner parts of such details as the hands. After the application of the remaining colours for figures and surrounds, the white enamel -grisaille to use the French term-was employed and tinted as necessary for faces and hands.
The final process was gilding and the attachment of blobs of enamel on metal foil, called paillons; they are jewel-like on the surface and increase the illusion of space and depth. The craftsmanship reflects the high standards achieved at Limoges after only about thirty years.
The Master of the Triptych seems to have been active from about 1490 to around 1515 and so far about thirty pieces have been attributed to him. Two (fig. 2) in the Museum bear on their reverse the impressed stamp of the Penicaud workshop of enamellers, which implies that our enameller was either a member of that famous family or that he may have bought copper blanks from the Penicaud. This could be likely since he may have been an illuminator without an enamelling workshop of his own.
Portraying a French monarch and his queen on a triptych is unique at this date, and leads to the related questions of the role of the court as art patron and the iconography of the Triptych. There had been a long established tradition of royal patronage before Louis XII came to the throne; Louis XI, for example, employed the great artist Jean Fouquet (about 1420 to about 1481) as his court painter.
Fouquet visited Italy and was largely responsible for introducing the Italian Renaissance style of architecture and ornament to France. His resplendent and influential Hours of Etienne Chevalier, painted in about 1455, draws heavily on the impressions gained from his travels. Two court artists working for Louis XII who followed Fouquet's innovations were Jean Bourdichon (1457-1521), and Jean Colombe (active about 1470, died 1529), Bourdichon is famous for his Hours of Anne of Brittany for which he was paid in 1518.
On the whole French artists tried to resist this trend towards the Renaissance and clung to the late Gothic style; however, in the face of what was virtually royal opposition they increasingly turned to the new iconography for these important illuminations. Enamellers were particularly affected for their subjects were not original but taken from existing material and there was little else available, print-making in France being minimal at the time.
Before the Master of the Triptych began work he looked for a suitable Annunciation to copy. Although there must have been several at hand in books of hours he chose probably a print, now lost, by a French artist based on an engraving (fig. 3) by the German Israhel van Meckenem, whose work attracted him before. It is not known from where he derived the portraits of Louis and his Queen, but it is possible that they may originally have been drawn by the Renaissance inspired and anonymous illuminator who made the book of hours called the Hours of Henri IV (fig. 4) now in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. The Master of the Triptych was so well-acquainted with this style that Professor Verdier has indicated that the artists may have been one and the same; however, the styles though similar do differ. The Triptych is a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance, blending well partly because the colours are limited and subdued.
Why was the Triptych made? There is no conclusive answer but certain events in the life of Louis XII provide suggestions. Louis, who reigned from 1498 to 1515, married Anne of Brittany in 1499; she was born in 1476 and was the widow of Charles VIII.
The Triptych could commemorate the royal marriage, or perhaps the birth of their first child, Claude, who was to become the first queen of Francis I. Current opinion favours the former, but if neither event is celebrated it is unlikely the piece was made after 1514 for in that year Anne died.
The identity of the sitters has been confirmed by the medals (fig. 5) struck in 1499, and the representations of Saint Louis (Louis XI of France) wearing the crown and holding the staff, and Saint Anne. The reason why Louis and Anne should appear on a Limoges enamel triptych may never be known to us, but their presence emphasises the success of the relatively new trade of enamelling at Limoges. This craft was to gain further honour in the reign of Louis' successor Francis I when he appointed the first enameller a court artist.
Written by Roger Pinkham, 1978, and published in the V&A Masterpieces series. Revised 2007.