The key to discovering the identity of the donor lay in the gold nettle leaves on the sleeves of his long, fur-lined houppelande, which was a very fashionable garment from around 1400. Nettle leaves were one of the emblems of Louis d’Orléans (1372-1407), son of Charles V of France and brother of Charles VI, whose periods of madness meant that Louis acted as Regent for his brother, competing and collaborating with his uncle the Duke of Berry and his uncle the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold. The latter died in 1404 and was succeeded by his son John the Fearless.
While the Duke of Orléans also used other emblems including the wolf and porcupine (the latter in reference to the Order of the Porcupine that he founded in 1394), in 1399 he began to use nettle leaves in preference to the others. The nettle leaves would continue to be used by his eldest son Charles after Louis’ murder on 23 November 1407. The Duke favoured this emblem during the period of his increasing conflict with the Dukes of Burgundy (first with his uncle, Philip the Bold, and subsequently with his cousin, John the Fearless, who instigated his murder in 1407) and his own growing political ambitions.
From the Duke’s inventories it is known that in 1403 he possessed LXV feuilles d’or en façon d’orties [65 gold leaves in the form of nettle leaves], which he must have used to adorn the sleeves of a garment like the one seen in the present panel. From contemporary chronicles and accounts it is also known that Louis was a dedicated follower of fashion, of which one of the most extravagant was this use of gold jewels on the sleeves. The 1st Duke of Orléans spent huge sums of money on clothes for himself, for members of his household and as gifts to his brother the King, his uncles the Dukes of Berry and Burgundy and other leading figures. The only known pictorial example of clothes adorned with nettle leaves is the miniature in the manuscript De bello Jugurthino de Caius Sallustius Crispus (BNF. Ms. Latin 5747), which depicts Sallust dressed as a king and instructing the Louis’ three sons, Charles, Philip and John, who can be identified by the nettle leaves on their green mantles.
No written description has survived nor is there any reliable image that allows us to know what Louis d’Orléans looked like. All we have are three images in manuscripts of the period that depict Christine de Pisan presenting the Duke with one of her books, L’Épître d’Othéa. Two of these miniatures are in colour. In the first, Louis is wearing a sumptuous blue houppelande with wolves (one of his emblems) on the sleeves and the collar of the Order of the Porcupine around his neck, seated under a canopy with the fleurs-de-lys of the French royal house (British Library, Hartley 4431). This canopy appears in all three images. In the second colour image he wears a long green houppelande with wide, fur-lined sleeves while around his neck is again the collar of the Order of the Porcupine (Bibliotheque Nationale de France, ms. fr. 606). In the third image, which is a monochrome ink drawing, the Duke is not shown with any of his emblems (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, ms. fr. 848). In all three, Louis’ hair is concealed by a large hat, in contrast to the Prado panel in which he is bareheaded as he is in the presence of God. In the panel he has a broad forehead and receding hairline which is not visible in the other images, although his nose and chin, which were two of his most striking features, are similar in all of them.
While it has not been possible to establish any connection between Louis d’Orléans and Saint Agnes, her presence protecting him in this image can be indirectly justified by the fact that she was the patron saint of his father, Charles V of France, who was born on her feast day, 21 January. Louis was extremely devoted to his father personally, while in the public sphere he always referred to his relationship to him and to his rights to the crown first, signing all documents as Louis, fils du roy de France, followed by his other titles. Secondly, Louis was married to Valentina Visconti, who was the daughter of the Duke of Milan. Both she and all the Visconti adopted Saint Agnes as their patron saint.