Susan here –you may have noticed, in our February Word Wenches e-newsletter, an image at the top of the page (if you haven’t subscribed to our newsletter, you can sign up here in the right-hand column!). The image is a detail from a medieval painting of hands holding a heart-shaped book. The curious little book isn’t common, and I wanted to know more.
Years ago, when I was a PhD student studying medieval art and majoring in Netherlandish/Northern Renaissance art, this sort of thing was right up my alley. The painting, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a 15th century unidentified portrait by a Netherlandish artist called the Master of the View of Sainte-Gudule, based on the portrait-like depiction of the church of Ste-Gudule in Brussels in the background. There are several other works attributed to him (and the artist could be a woman--they also worked as painters and illuminators), with all the works dating to 1480 to 1500. The master seems to have worked in Brussels, smack in the region so well known for the brilliantly realistic, meticulously detailed paintings of the 15th c. Netherlandish style, which developed in part from the tradition of book illumination; the style flourished with Jan Van Eyck and others including
Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling.
This painting, oil on wood panel, may have been part of a diptych—a hinged set of two panels—since the sitter faces our left, his right, as if looking toward another sitter or another scene. Double portraits were often presented as diptychs or triptychs—three-panel paintings which often featured a religious scene in the center, sometimes flanked by patron portraits or saints in the panels or within the center image itself. The mysterious man with the heart-shaped book may have been gazing at his wife in the other panel, or his name saint, or he might have faced a devotional scene such as the Virgin and Child or the Adoration of the Magi.
He may have been a nobleman or a Flemish merchant able to afford to commission a multi-panel painting, and he shows us another treasure—the heart-shaped book bound in red leather was probably a prayer book, no doubt quite expensive and likely handmade; printed books were more common by then, but special books like this one would be hand done, unsuited to the large cumbersome presses. Because of the church interior so delicately and accurately depicted, the sitter may have had some connection to Ste-Gudule, and his prayers may have been directed to Saint Gudula, or to his own patron saint.
Even more curious—this painting has a near twin, also attributed to the Master of Ste-Gudule, in the National Gallery in London. In the London painting the sitter resembles the other man, similar enough to be the same man, or a son or brother; the clothing and background differ a little; the style is similar to the New York painting, but the technique in the London is less delicate, earthier, and the drawing even shows the same disproportion in the figure. Flemish artists of the time were trained in techniques that emerged from manuscript illumination—miniature, detailed, meticulous, paintings realistic in vision with polished, painstaking detail, and both paintings demonstrate that.
The two paintings have some differences, but the heart-shaped books are nearly identical (both show differently crinkled pages, quite naturalistic). One painting might be an earlier version of the other, or partial copy, or meant to be a similar commission. The similarities are intriguing. But what is the significance of the heart-shaped book, in an age where objects in portraits often carried deliberate symbolism?
Could the book be a valentine, an allusion to love, the giving of the heart, an expression of heart’s desire? Red hearts were a favorite sentimental symbol of love and undying devotion at the time. Was the book a comment meant for a wife in the missing panel? Or was it an artist’s prop or a treasured possession of the sitter, something rare and expensive enough to show his wealth and importance?
Valentine’s Day had become special for love and lovers by the 14th century, though heart-shaped goodies—or books—was still rare. The day evolved centuries after the martyrdom of Valentine, condemned for his faith by the Romans, his Catholic saint’s day falling on February 14th; he’s associated with hearts and love due to his sacrifice to save the daughter of a friend. Valentine love was mentioned by Chaucer—For this was on seynt Volantynys day/Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make—and by the poet Charles d’Orleans—Als wele is him this day that hath him kaught/A valentine that louyth him—and in a letter by Margery Brews to John Paston in the 1470s: “My right well-beloved Valentine John Paston,” she wrote.
But the little red book is not connected with the winter of February in either painting, where the seasons seem to be spring or summer. So this may not be a Valentine to some lucky Brussels lady after all.
Today we see books in all shapes, sizes and every variation imaginable. In the late medieval era, books were becoming more common, more affordable—thanks to the invention of the printing press in the 1450s—and were desirable as evidence of wealth, status, education, influence. For centuries, books had been handwritten by scribes on parchment or vellum, many of the beautifully illustrated or illuminated by artists, early on available primarily to the wealthy or to clergy, with scribes working for church or noble or royal patrons. There were prayer books, books of hours (a very popular form), choral and music books, philosophical and theological books, advice books, tutorials, poetry…the list is very, very long. The process of making books became more streamlined and commercial—sold through booksellers who coordinated with artists, scribes and binders—books became more affordable and available. And the art of the book became more adventurous, exploring sizes, shapes, designs, decoration and content.
The heart-shaped book is unusual, but not entirely unique. Some medieval books were shaped like hearts, roundels, spades, even fleur-de-lis; some were accordion expandable, some so tiny they would tuck away in a small purse on a belt, such as the miniature Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux. The more unusual and unique the book, the more expensive it might be. (For more information on manuscripts like these, check out Prof. Erik Kwaakel's blog.)
And that might be part of the meaning behind the heart-shaped book in the two Netherlandish portraits—its special and expensive quality, showing that this man was not only devout, holding a book of prayers, but rich enough and cool enough to own such a book—and proud of it.
Whatever the meaning of the beautiful little heart book, this medieval Brussels man was possibly so proud of his possession that he commemorated it in his portrait. That may or may not be the case in both paintings—but it is fun to speculate!
What do you think of the heart-shaped book? What scenario do you think fits the portrait—is he telling someone he loves her, making a move on his Valentine, showing off a prize possession, or something else? And it's intriguing to wonder why the artist painted these two different portraits, showing the same curious little book.