Years ago, when I was a PhD student studying medieval art, Netherlandish painting was my major focus. This painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a 15th-century unidentified portrait by a Netherlandish artist known as the Master of the View of Sainte-Gudule, based on the portrait-like depiction of the church of Sainte-Gudule in Brussels in the background. Several other works are attributed to this artist, dated by style or detail to 1480-1500. This master artist worked at a time when Flemish painters followed a meticulous realism and minute attention to detail that emerged from the long tradition of book illumination in Europe; 15th-century Netherlandish painting particularly flourished with artists such as Jan Van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling and others.
The little portrait of a man holding a heart-shaped book, painted in oil on wood panel, may have been part of a diptych or triptych, a hinged set of two or three panels; the sitter faces our left, his right as if looking toward another scene or another sitter. Double portraits often flanked a central religious scene, the sitters being patrons or saints. Perhaps the mysterious man with the heart-shaped book gazed at his wife in an opposite panel, or perhaps he looked toward his name saint or a devotional scene such as the Virgin and Child or the Adoration of the Magi.
The man is unknown, but he may have been a nobleman or a merchant, someone who could afford to commission a multi-panel painting–and own the treasure he displays in his hands. Bound in red leather, the little heart-shaped book was probably a prayer book, likely expensive and handcrafted. It could also have been a book of poetry or epic romance, given the heart shape. While printed books were becoming more common by the late 15th century–the style here strongly indicates a date–special books like this one would be handcrafted in every detail. The church interior in the painting's background, delicately and accurately depicted, must have had some significance for the sitter too. Possibly he had a personal connection to Ste-Gudule, the church depicted here, and his prayers may also have been directed to Saint Gudula.
Even more curious, this painting has a near twin also attributed to the Master of Ste-Gudule, now in the National Gallery in London. In the London painting, the sitter resembles the man in the first painting. The sitters are possibly the same man, years apart, or perhaps a son or brother. The clothing, background, and style are very similar–the hats and surcoats are identical, for instance–and the technique in both is refined, a tad awkward in proportion here and there, yet reflecting a meticulous eye for detail and the polished realism of Netherlandish painting.
The heart-shaped books are nearly identical too, though different pages are seen, crinkled in a naturalistic way. One painting could be an earlier portrait of the same sitter and his cherished book, or could be a copy made for some reason. The similarities are intriguing. But what is the significance of the heart-shaped book in an age where objects in paintings often had deliberate symbolism?
Is the book meant to be a valentine, an allusion to love, an expression of heart’s desire? By the 15th century, red hearts were a favorite sentimental emblem of love and devotion. Perhaps the book was a symbol of heart's devotion, intended for a wife portrayed in the missing panel. Its prominent display certainly carried a specific meaning. And such a rare little book would also show the owner's wealth, taste, and importance — perhaps a note of pride, or an appeal to a special someone in his life.
By the 14th century, Valentine’s Day had become special for love and lovers, though heart-shaped goodies—and books—were still rare. Centuries before, Saint Valentine had been martyred for his Christian faith, killed by the Romans. His saint’s day fell on February 14th and his association with hearts and love came about because he sacrificed his own life to save a friend's daughter from death–a gesture of purest love. Centuries later, Chaucer mentioned Valentine in a romantic sense—For this was on seynt Volantynys day/Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his mate—as did the poet Charles d’Orleans—Als wele is him this day that hath him kaught/A valentine that louyth him—and Margery Brews in a letter 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 books come in all shapes, sizes, and variations. In the late medieval era, books had become more common and affordable, providing not just education, but serving as evidence of wealth and status. For centuries, books had been handwritten by scribes on parchment or vellum, often illuminated by artists, but only the wealthy or the Church could afford to commission them. Prayer books, books of hours (a very popular form), choral and music books, philosophical and theological books, domestic advice, tutorials, poetry, epic tales…the list is very long. Library collections in monasteries, churches, and private homes grew as books became more accessible and the process of making books became more streamlined, sold through booksellers who coordinated with artists, scribes, and binders. 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 could be tucked away in a purse or a belt, such as the miniature Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, but a couple of inches big (above). The more unusual and unique the book, the more expensive it was to produce and purchase.
Part of the meaning of the heart-shaped book in the two Netherlandish portraits was to show that this man was rich enough–and cool enough–to own such a book. He was certainly proud of it. Another part of the meaning, I like to think, was a gesture of love to someone not portrayed.
What do you think of this little book? The story hidden behind these very similar portraits is a curious little art history mystery. Wishing you a wonderful Valentine's Day – indulge yourself with some little gift and enjoy! 💖💞💖🌹💐