An appealing volume for the generalist and specialist alike, The Donor’s Image provides an analysis of the history, context, and iconography of one of the world’s most precious and fascinating objects: the gold reliquary statuette of Charles the Bold and St. George, preserved in the treasury of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Liège. Hugo van der Velden’s book is a revised version of his 1997 doctoral dissertation (Gerard Loyet & Karel de Stoute. Het Votiefportret in de Bourgondische Nederlanden.Utrecht University). The volume is conveniently divided into three parts, which, although clearly related to each other, can easily be read independently. With the exception of the occasional awkward sentence construction, Beverly Jackson’s translation of the text from Dutch into English is lucid and even.
Part 1 of Van der Velden’s study is devoted to a re-examination of the life and career of the court goldsmith Gerard Loyet, and to the re-creation of the artist’s presumed oeuvre. Because the Liège statuette is the only known work by Loyet to survive, Van der Velden relies on documentary evidence and extant comparative works to re-create the career and reputation of his chosen subject. In so doing, he presents Gerard Loyet as the most significant artist during the reign of Charles the Bold, an ambitious claim that scholars of fifteenth-century panel painting and manuscript illumination will, no doubt, find rather difficult to accept. This enthusiasm is, however, easily understood when one recalls the roots of this study in the author’s doctoral dissertation, and considers the lack of serious scholarship devoted to artists like Loyet, whose works were consigned to the smelting furnace long ago.
In Part 2, the author offers an overview of the many votive portraits commissioned by Charles the Bold and of the circumstances surrounding the commission of the Liège piece in particular. By reviewing the historical record and the surviving documents, Van der Velden convincingly argues that the statuette was presented by Charles in 1471 not as an act of atonement for his destruction of Liège in 1467 and 1468, but as an ex-voto offering to St. Lambert, titular saint of Liège, in thanks for the duke’s victories over the city’s rebellious citizens. The author also addresses the reliquary function of the statuette, providing evidence that the tiny casket held by the figure of Charles actually contains a fragment of the finger bone of St. Adrian, rather than of St. Lambert as is generally assumed.
In a chapter dedicated to an analysis of the iconography of the Liège statuette, Van der Velden draws parallels to Jan van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele as a source for the fanciful armor and deferential pose of St. George. A logical and convincing argument, this parallel is wonderfully, if only coincidentally, reinforced by images of the photographer clearly reflected in the golden armor of the Liège figure!
In Part 3 of the book, Van der Velden turns his attention to a general discussion of the genre and historiography of votive gifts and votive portraits. Citing several contemporary and earlier examples, the author explores the characteristic sequence of ex-voto offerings: from the vow made, to an act performed by the holy patron, to the presentation of the gift in adherence with the vow. Van der Velden also offers a brief excursus on the nature and significance of what he calls the ‘consumptive material’ – wax, silver, or even gold – of many, if not most, votive gifts. Perhaps most valuable to the specialist is the inclusion, in two appendices, of all the documents relating to Gerard Loyet in general, and to the Liège statuette in particular. The addition of these documentary sources not only provides a valuable resource for the scholar of fifteenth-century applied arts, but also offers a fascinating glimpse of the intense material culture and unfathomable wealth of the Valois court.
The volume is richly illustrated with contemporary portraits, comparable examples of contemporary metalwork, reconstruction drawings, and rarely seen details of the Liège statuette taken during recent conservation treatment. A series of lavish color plates, photographed especially for this book, includes spectacular images of the Liège reliquary that underscore dramatically its rarity and preciousness. The cover photo alone – a close detail of the Duke’s portrait head literally topped with golden curls – will entice even the most casual reader.
Nancy E. Zinn
The Walters Art Museum