Musée du Louvre, Aile Richelieu 2e étage: Northern European Painting 14th-16th Centuries

I was looking on the rooflines for snipers. Outside the Louvre metal fences controlled entry to the Pyramid courtyard. Groups of ski-masked stare-right-through-you assault rifle carrying French Army soldiers dotted the perimeter, Carrousel, and entrance passages. The roofline though was clear. After all, it’s more about security theatre for civilians than it is about engaging a determined terrorist, security theatre on show in the airports where brown and Muslim people were pulled aside while the good neo-Nazis got a smiling walk through. It was Friday, the week after November 13th.

Outside, a snaking queue of a couple of hundred of us jovially shuffled through the rain to the box before the Pyramid where we were scanned like going through airport customs. Down the elevator, and more of that airport colossal scale. I wandered in circles for a bit, trying to make legible the mess of escalators, avenues, circulating crowds, before realising there were ticket areas on each of the four sides. Ticket acquired, Louvre plan acquired, monomaniacal desire to gawp at mediæval art delayed by inability to operate fancy locker combination lock, all more like being in the MCG for Friday night footy than art.

I would have started at the point furthest from there even if it hadn’t been Northern European mediæval and renaissance art. Lucky for me then. Next task was how to get to that distant corner. Scale is important here. The square of the Sully Wing is 150 metres a side, that’s 600 metres on each of its three floors, so 1800 metres of walking if it was a straight line. Add half again because it’s mostly parallel chambers and corridors, so 2700 metres for that wing. Slightly more for the trapezoid of the Richelieu Wing with its courtyard and interior wings, and that again for the Denon Wing which approximately mirrors Richelieu then goes merrily off along 500 metres of grand promenade. All that not including meandering, doubling back, stairways, deadends, been through here already from a different angle, getting lost. A lot of getting lost. Quite a bit of “can’t get there from here.” Very much Aéroport Louvre.

By the time I arrived at the first work, La Parement de Narbonne, I was completely convinced I was gonna enjoy the shit out of all this, and still harbouring the misconception it would be a usual museum jaunt, three hours tops, probably enough mediæval art to go, “yeah, thanks!” but not enough to be sated. I swear if I’d taken the audio guide I’d still be in there.

Mediæval and Renaissance painting from Northern Europe, 14th-16th centuries. It’s really rare to see art pre-12th century, sculpture less so, but painting generally falls under a cryptic dividing line where Migration Period / Early Middle Ages / arbitrary delineation around 1100CE is more likely to be found in archaeology museums than say, Gemäldegalerie or Bode Museum. Same in the Louvre.

Same in the Louvre also: women, Semitic and Muslim people, North and Sub-Saharan African, Persian, Central Asian. I approach mediæval (and more recent) art looking for these people, but lately I think their absence is more telling. Botticelli is a good example of this: so explicitly white it’s remarkable. What I found in the Louvre was the unremarkability in mediæval and renaissance art of this presence. They—we—were everywhere. Which is partly why it took me 2 months to get through all the images—and that’s excluding the works which were unphotographable, of which in the Louvre there were so, so many.

A couple of early works make an excellent comparison of the breadth of styles: La Vierge à l’Enfant à l’écritoire and Jacquemart de Hesdin’s Le Portement de Croix, both from around the start of the 15th century. The former is classically medieval, vertical, symmetrical, front-facing, lavish use of gold and embossing; the latter a riot of movement and form, layering of groups and narratives, blocked in browns and slabs of lapis lazuli, reminding me of Islamic art from the same period.

La Messe de saint Grégoire and Maître du feuillage en broderie’s La Vierge et l’Enfant entourés d’anges also from the same period, the first one, which I assembled from multiple shots, with its early use of perspective and vast empty surfaces contrasts with the three-dimensionality, naturalism, and opulence of the second. Then of course there’s Hans Memling with his Portrait d’une femme âgée, still the same period, yet about as secular in its absence of overt religious iconography as any portrait from today. He also did the next one, Ange tenant un rameau d’olivier, which gives an indication of the diversity of styles a single artist could have.

Jan Provost’s Allégorie chrétienne is one of those supremely trippy works that convinces me there were a lot of hallucinogenics eaten back then. Deeply weirder than any Dali, a vast hand bearing a blue orb with earth, crescent moon and sun, radiant eyes floating in golden clouds, a levitating crowned lamb. Maybe all the heavy symbols and symbolism is forced, but in the work itself it transcends this. I have no idea how a person at that time might look at such a piece, it’s kinda terrifying.

My wanderings were non-chronological. I’d turn a corner and skip forward two centuries, later find myself magically dropped back. One of the things the Louvre does very well is not inflicting a single narrative of the works through a prescribed path. The abundance of stairs, elevators, detours, means it’s possible to loop up and down and around wings and salles and corridors in myriad combinations.

There was one Bynum (what I call representations of Christ that are exceptionally bloody) of which I only have a closeup, La flagellation du Christ saint Pierre et saint Paul. It’s a moderate bloodiness compared to what I saw further east, though coming as it does from Thüringen, it’s in the Germanic tradition rather than western Europe, where such rivers of blood didn’t catch on.

Ludger tom Ring l’Ancien’s La Sibylle Delphique is another one of those portraits of women I love, along with Quentin Metsys’ Sainte Madeleine (check out both of their clothes and headdress), and the couple in Jose Lieferinxe’s La Visitation; au revers, figure de sainte Lucie. In between all the magnificent Jose Lieferinxe pieces, Trois prophètes, the middle of the trio flagging Isaiah XI. I’m in it for their headgear and their faces.

One of the few L’Adoration des mages is Ulrich Apt l’Ancien’s. ‘Few.’ There were many; there were also thousands of other paintings. Another is Maître de la sainte Parenté’s L’Adoration des mages, La Présentation au temple, L’Apparition du Christ à la Vierge. Again, similar date and so completely different in style.

One of my favourites is Enguerrand Quarton’s La Pietà de Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, probably at some time ransacked and folded (the French made a point of filling the Louvre in this way). Really difficult to photograph, with glare all over the show, but I think the detail of Mary (guessing Magdalene) shows what a profound work this is.

Approximately here I stumble out of Northern European mediæval painting and into 16th-17th century painting. I actually went back and forth a few times, veered into the later French stuff in the Sully Wing, veered back again. All that continues in the next post.