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The Agony in the Garden

The Agony in the Garden

The Agony in the Garden with the Donor Louis d’Orléans

Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid 2/11/2013 - 4/28/2013

The presence of four holes for hinges on the lateral edges of the frame suggests that this painting may originally have been the central panel of a small triptych that would have had the coat-of-arms of the Duke of Orléans (and possibly that of his wife, Valentina Visconti) on the lateral panels. However, at the present time this suggestion cannot be proved.

The panel’s small size indicates that it may have been intended for a private devotional space rather than a public one such as a church or cathedral, perhaps for the chapel of one of the Duke’s residences. The fact that Louis d’Orléans is not accompanied by his wife or children, as would be expected if this were a single panel, must be for a particular reason. The subject of The Agony in the Garden and the inclusion of the opening words of the Psalm Miserere mei on the scroll that Louis holds are to be found in works of art with a funerary context. Such a context would explain why Louis is depicted without his wife or children. If this were the case, the panel would not have been commissioned by the Duke but by his wife or eldest son Charles d’Orléans. They commissioned the Duke’s tomb after he was murdered on the orders of John the Fearless in November 1407 and also retained in their service the artists who had worked for Louis.


Room 58A

Sponsored by:
Fundación Iberdrola



Identification and acquisition

Identification and acquisition
Detail of the kneeling Christ and God the Father

The panel was left at the Museum in February 2011 for study and possible acquisition. After it entered the Museum technical analyses were carried out in the form of ultraviolet photography in the Museum’s Photographic Laboratory, X-radiography and Infra-red reflectography in its Technical Documentation Department, and tests on the pigments and support in the Analysis Laboratory. Working with the Museum’s technical staff, Pilar Silva Maroto, Head of the Department of Spanish Painting (1100-1500) and Flemish and Northern Schools Painting (1400-1600) undertook the art-historical and documentary study on the painting.

The results of the technical analyses were surprising. While it was evident with the naked eye that the panel had a thick area of overpainting covering its lower left side, there was nothing visible to indicate what was beneath it. X-radiography and Infra-red reflectography revealed that the artist who painted the panel had in fact included the figure of a richly dressed, kneeling male donor wearing clothes in fashion around 1400, his head bare and holding a scroll with the opening words of the Psalm Miserere mei […]. He is protected by Saint Agnes, who can be identified by the lamb at her feet.

Dendrochonology confirmed that the Baltic oak panel was from the correct period and that the work could have been painted from 1382 onwards although the style of the donor’s clothes indicates a date of around 1400 onwards. X-radiography showed the structure of the panel and also the fact that the lateral elements of the frame (which is the original one) are an integral part of the panel, while the horizontal elements were attached to it with round pegs.

Pigment analysis indicated that the original paint and later overpainting were separated by an isolating layer of varnish that made it possible to safely remove the overpainting. Once this was established it was decided to remove the overpainting, as this was the only way to gain complete knowledge of the work’s state of preservation and to assess it correctly. This was carried out by María Antonia López de Asiaín in the Prado’s Restoration Studio in January 2012.



The first step was to remove the varnish, which was a natural resin one and could therefore be taken off with a light dissolvent. The next step was to remove the overpainting. This consisted of two layers, of which the upper one had pigments that were only used from the 19th century onwards. While the layers of overpainting were easy to distinguish and were separated from the original paint by the isolating layer, the original paint was very fragile and dissolvents could not be used. For this reason and given the small size of the painting, it was decided to remove the paint manually using a scalpel and the help of a stereoscopic microscope. Using the highest possible magnification made it possible at all times for the restorer to identify pigment that was not part of the original work, which is painted in egg tempera.

After this overpainting was removed, Saint Agnes and the donor reappeared in remarkably good condition. The bright colours of their clothes suggested that the other figures of Christ and the Apostles might also have been retouched (which proved to be the case) as they had a thicker texture, darker and more opaque colour range than the original tempera seen on the donor and saint. With the assistance of the Museum’s Laboratory, which analysed micro-samples of the green of Saint John’s mantle, it was confirmed that these figures had two pictorial layers separated by a layer of varnish, in other words, the overpaint on the surface and the original paint underneath it. These areas of overpainting were also removed in the same way as those on the donor and saint, by hand with a scalpel and the assistance of a microscope.

Once cleaning was complete, the restorer proceeded to replace any losses to the paint surface, which were small in size and few in number given that this panel is in exceptionally good condition. This was done with watercolour and the help of a microscope in order not to cover any of the original paint. With the aim of preserving the panel’s lively colours it was decided to use a natural dammar varnish applied in a very thin layer. At the end of the restoration process it was evident that the painting had recovered its original quality, the liveliness of its bright colours and the relationship between the different pictorial planes as they recede into depth.

More information about restoring.

The donor

The donor
Detail of the Donor where you can see part of the sleeves with nettle leaves

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.

The attribution

The attribution
Detail of Saint Peter

Among the very few surviving French panel paintings from the period around 1400 to 1410, or indeed from a broader period between 1380 and 1420, there are no other works by the creator of this panel, whether a named artist or an anonymous one. Nor can his hand be identified in illuminated manuscripts. This is not surprising given the very large proportion of such works that are now lost.

The fact that it is not possible to securely attribute this panel due to a lack of any documentary references does not in any way detract from its merit. The artist must have worked in Paris, very probably in court circles to judge from the identity of the donor, while his style shows no trace of the Flemish and Burgundian art that influenced Parisian painting at this period due to the arrival in the capital of artists from those regions. While it cannot be proved at the present time, one possible hypothesis is that this panel is by Colart de Laon, documented between 1377 and 1411. Colart was painter and valet de chambre to Louis d’Orléans from 1391 until the Duke’s death in 1407 then held the same position with his son Charles until 1411. One of the most important painters of the day to judge from the documentary evidence, Colart produced a large number of works of a varied type for Louis and later for his son. Many are of the ephemeral kind normally produced by court painters such as painting on shields, carriages, and decorations for celebrations such as triumphal entries and tournaments, etc., but it can certainly be assumed that Colart produced works of other types, including easel paintings, for the Duke. Although these are all now lost, it is feasible to suggest that he could have produced a painting such as the present Agony in the Garden, in which Louis d’Orléans appears as the donor, whether directly commissioned from him by the Duke or by his wife and son immediately after his murder.

Stylistically, this panel is a fine example of the International Gothic characteristic of the Paris region to which Colart de Laon could well have adhered. The manner of representing the figures with their slender bodies differs from the broader forms of Burgundian and Flemish painting, nor do we find an interest here in the inclusion of details from the natural world such as birds and flowers that is characteristic of those schools. A comparison of the way the space is depicted in this panel (particularly the background) and in other surviving panel paintings reveals a considerable difference. While most of them have a gold background or a landscape with sky, here the artist paints the sky with gold stars of the type found in illuminated manuscripts of the period, including works by the Boucicaut Master (1390-1430). Furthermore, the rediscovery of this work reveals that French panel painters had an interest in space and in achieving an effect of three-dimensionality comparable to that found in manuscript illumination of this period.


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