Quarton – Coronation of the Virgin

The medieval village of Villneuve-les-Avignon lies just across from the busy town of Avignon. In contrast to the town, the village and its museum offer an oasis of calm – the museum is devoted to one work, Enguerrand Quarton’s Coronation of the Virgin.

This altarpiece was painted during 1453-4 for the local Carthusian monastery. It fills a complete wall of the museum. Unusually the original specification for the picture survives. It is a list of Christian teachings which Quarton faithfully turned into paint – anyone interested can find an analysis of how this was done in Fr John Saward’s Sweet and Blessed Country.

The picture shows the Virgin crowned by the Trinity, surrounded by saints and angels. At the bottom of the picture Christ on the cross opens the way to heaven. To his right there is Rome, beneath which is Purgatory; to his left there is Jerusalem, beneath which is Hell. The picture is densely populated with saints and sinners, angels and devils, and yet all this is dominated by the central group, of Father, Son,

Spirit and Virgin. These four make two triangles, that of Mary pointing up to heaven, that of the Trinity pointing down to the cross.

The Trinity and Mary dominate the picture, not just by their design, but by their size and boldness. Even more wonderful and striking is the way the Father and the Son are a mirror image of one another, to the extent that it is not obvious which is which, until you remember the Son sits at the Father’s right. And Mary has the same family resemblance. She is clearly the mother of Jesus and the Mother of God.

Quarton has brought home the central teaching of Christianity, that he who has seen Jesus has seen God the Father. At the same time, because Jesus is so clearly his mother’s son, he also emphasizes that Jesus is truly man as well as truly God. This great Christian painting makes Christ’s Incarnation not dry theologizing but the living truth – Jesus is God and man.

Owen Higgs