Nativity with Cardinal Jean Rolin (ca. 1480) by Jean Hey. Located in the Musée Rolin, Autun, France.
This painting of the Nativity by Jean Hey is a little like one of those children’s picture puzzle games: “Look carefully now: Can you spot who doesn’t belong?”
Let’s see, there’s Jesus. Check. Mary and Joseph. Check. Angels, shepherds, animals. Check, check, check. But who is that fellow kneeling over on the right? Not one of the Magi, surely. Why, it’s the man who paid for the painting. But what is he doing there, 1500 years before his time? He looks very out of place.
As puzzles go, that wasn’t very challenging, of course, but maybe that is why there can be something incongruous, even unseemly, about the “donor portrait,” as this sort of painting is known. We may applaud donors and their charitable works, but when they push themselves so obviously into places where they don’t belong, like prototypical photo crashers, we may wonder just who or what they are honoring—the birth of Jesus, say, or their own egos?
Mixed motives abound in human actions, of course, even seemingly noble ones. Jesus thought it necessary to warn his followers about not sounding trumpets “like the hypocrites” when they gave alms, and to keep their left and right hands in ignorance of the other’s deeds. But even with that authoritative notice, donor portraits appeared early on in Christian art, grew steadily in popularity through the Middle Ages (in panel paintings, manuscripts, and reliefs), and really took off in the Renaissance.
Hey’s Nativity with Cardinal Jean Rolin, from around 1480, is fairly typical of the mature form in that it sets the donor prominently in the same pictorial space as the main subjects. To be sure, in medieval art, where the artistic illusion of space was lacking, donors also show up not far from Jesus or Mary, or whatever sacred figure is being represented, but the effect feels less pushy, less about the donor, perhaps because of the greater level of artistic abstraction. Typically, the donors stand or bow or kneel in postures of respect, with generic, unspecific faces; they are often miniaturized to stress their relative unimportance and demonstrate their humility.
With the rise of panel paintings, any latent vanity could be further moderated by shunting donors off to a separate side panel, or even the exterior wings of a triptych, where they would be hidden when the interior scene was exposed. And it was a relatively exceptional donor who would presume to come before Jesus without a saintly sponsor or two to introduce him.
These medieval conventions can be seen occasionally even in Baroque art, but by the Renaissance many donors were demanding larger and more independent roles in their commissions. So while the Holy Family certainly seems to be the primary focus of Hey’s composition, it is the cardinal, Bishop of Autun and son of the powerful Chancellor Nicolas Rolin (himself the subject of a famous donor portrait by Jan van Eyck), who comes close to stealing the show. In fact, the longer one looks, the more inconsequential the holy personages begin to feel and the more the title seems in need of a “Spinal Tap” inversion: Cardinal Jean Rolin with the Nativity. Mary and Joseph, et al., are familiar figures, after all, conventionally rendered; they do not inspire much lasting curiosity, at least from an aesthetic standpoint. The Virgin’s lily-white complexion might give some pause, and the background shepherds add a lively note, but it is, arguably, the cardinal’s eye-catching, red-and-white garments and his enigmatic expression that ultimately capture the viewer’s interest.
A Man Apart
Hey pulls off this feat of shifting attention to Rolin without any obvious insult to Jesus (not that any was contemplated). He puts together a masterfully asymmetrical composition that appears balanced despite the uneven distribution of the figures. But although Mary remains more or less in the middle, the entire Nativity ensemble is literally marginalized. The figures of Mary and the two angels are chopped off by the edges of the picture, and Joseph and the shepherds have been partially hidden by painted obstructions. Not counting the Holy Child, only the cardinal appears as a complete figure. His visual importance is further enhanced by the horizontals and verticals in the walls behind him, which subtly frame and lead the viewer’s eyes in his direction.
With our attention thus diverted, what can we say of the man? He kneels prayerfully enough, but he seems to have arrived at the miraculous event unattended except by his favorite dog, and with his cardinal’s hat and family coat of arms to vouch for him instead of a saint. And despite his evident determination to be there, he comes across as strangely disengaged and isolated: His heavily-lidded eyes gaze languidly a some distant point well past the backs of the Joseph and Mary. On top of that, he has been compositionally sequestered from all the other characters, who form an interconnected unit: Even though he exists in their space, his painted form does not physically contact or overlap any of them. (Needless to say, no one acknowledges his presence either.) Yet for the viewer, he is, like many another donor, an intrusive, alien element.
So what is he doing there? Is he a humble spiritual pilgrim, a generous patron of the arts, or is he an vain egotist who has invalidated whatever charity we might have credited him with by seeking fame and “men’s approval”?
Motivations are never easy to gauge, especially past ones, and contemporaneous assessments are unlikely to be objective: Beams in eyes are never in short supply. Cynics like to accuse notable philanthropists of the past—who were of course corrupt and devious to a man—of endowing orphanages, building up churches, and projecting an image of prayerful humility only to relieve a guilty conscience or to buy their way into heaven. Even if true, it says something about them that they still had a guilty conscience and thought it advisable to present a humble, charitable face to the world. These days, even the show of religious obligation is mocked, and conspicuous consumption and indulgent behavior are celebrated in the media.
Rolin undoubtedly used his influential family ties to improve his position in the world and rise to lofty levels within the Church; he was not an unambitious man. But as bishop, the evidence suggests that he had the physical and spiritual well-being of his flock at least partly in mind. Besides administering the hospital founded by his father and seeing to the repair of the great Romanesque cathedral of Autun, he commissioned at his own expense numerous missals and other manuscripts, panel paintings (including possibly the van Eyck mentioned earlier), and liturgical objects for the use and beautification of the churches in his diocese; his Nativity donor portrait is only one from amongst these various works.
No doubt a measure of narcissism lies behind many a donor portrait—perhaps the same amount that inspires the hundreds of millions of people who, having now the means and the technology, photograph and document every aspect of their daily lives and expose it all on the Internet. There is an undying human desire for validation, “proof” that we are alive, that can be satisfied by seeing images of ourselves—and having others see them too. We especially like to wrap ourselves in the glamour of a special event or place by displaying ourselves with it as a backdrop: Who would not like to have been present at the Nativity?
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
The inherent anachronism of Rolin at the Nativity is less about inserting him (or any donor) into the past, however, and more about bringing the past into his present—and ours as well. Donors might be flattered by associating with spiritual superstars, but all Christians need reminders of where their faith comes from and examples of how they should live. A donor portrait set up in a church ought to be viewed as a public example of virtuous behavior, offered for our instruction and imitation. It is an appeal, a challenge, to us to exercise our own charity, to make the God of all time present in our lives, and it is a sign of hope for anyone despairing of mercy, if even possibly notorious sinners can be received by Mary and her Son.
That charity ought to extend to the donors themselves, who often stipulated that their name be commemorated, and their soul prayed for—in perpetuity—by the beneficiaries of their largesse. Catholics routinely pray for the poor souls in purgatory, but is it possible to look on the unfamiliar face of Jean Rolin from 500 years’ distance and see not a remote historical figure, but a real person whose soul we can or should pray for (even if the only benefit we have received from him is the sight of this painting)?
If donor portraits prove nothing else, it is that worldly fame and fortune are passing things. In most cases, whatever notoriety these worthy benefactors had in their day is long gone, their names worth at best a shrug of the shoulders from most of us. Their likenesses hang in churches and museums, immortalized and forgotten, their blank expressions mirrored by our own. Even the artist may suffer a similar fate. Since at least the Greek vase-makers, artists have signed their works, as much to serve as a seal of authenticity as from a desire that their name be preserved—but there is no guarantee of success.
It was only recently that Jean Hey’s name was linked with this and a small body of other masterworks which had long been ascribed to a certain “Master of Moulins”; even with the identification, Hey remains an indistinct figure. Perhaps that is as he wished it, though one contemporary record calls Hey a pictor egregious—“a famous painter.” Yet many artists pointedly don’t sign their works: The anonymous laborers who built the cathedrals intended another kind of example when they inscribed the words of Psalm 113 (115) on their constructions: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to thy Name give glory.”
The donor portrait really only makes sense in a thoroughly Christian or religious society. There is a reason the genre faded in the early modern era, pushed aside by the secular portrait pure and simple. It is difficult to imagine a contemporary revival: What present-day political figure or celebrity can we envision kneeling in the place of the cardinal without the effect being offensively or laughably self-aggrandizing or patently ironic? But that may be the very reason we should not neglect the donor portrait or its message: It remains a potent reminder of our continuing obligation to aspire to virtue and lead the world back to faith.