“Jean Fouquet’s “The Melun Diptych” (c. 1455) is one of the Northern Renaissance’s most iconic — and creepiest — paintings. The work comprises two oil-on-wood panels: One features an unsettling depiction of a ghostly white, heavily idealized Virgin Mary, and the other shows patron Étienne Chevalier kneeling alongside Saint Stephen, who grips a book that balances an oddly shaped rock likely in reference to his New Testament martyrdom by stoning. Now, a team of researchers says that this rock was modeled after a human-made handaxe that our Paleolithic ancestors used to cut wood, slice meat, and dig for root vegetables.
“I’ve known about Fouquet’s painting for years and I had always thought that the stone object looked like a Prehistoric tool,” Steven Kangas, an art history professor at Dartmouth College, said in a statement. “This was always sort of stuck in the back of my mind as something that I needed to pursue in the future.”
A lecture on Tanzanian handaxes fueled his suspicion, and Kangas teamed up with fellow Dartmouth professor Jeremy DeSilva, a paleoanthropologist, and two scholars from England’s University of Cambridge, Alastair Key and James Clark, to investigate. They published their findings this summer in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, where they detailed how they determined that Fouquet’s image shared the same shape, color, and number of chiseled flake marks as the real-life artifacts from Northern France.
The team knew that Fouquet would have had access to these Prehistoric objects, named Acheulean handaxes. His peers in the Medieval society of northern France dug quarries and built abbeys and settlements atop ancient sites. The researchers had also seen these works mentioned in writing. Late Medieval Europeans mistook them for “thunderstones shot from the clouds” during lightning storms, an assumption that persisted until scientists during the Enlightenment uncovered their human-made origins. Even Ancient Romans had associated similar types of tools with thunderstorms.
While the earliest written record of this particular type of Acheulean handaxe dates to the 1600s, historians now know that Medieval people were using them a full two centuries earlier, when Fouquet painted his diptych in 1455.
“Evidently Jean Fouquet saw something extraordinary in this object,” the paper reads. “[He] chose to render it with as much precision and detail as that given to the jeweled crown of the Virgin or the perspectival architecture.”
While the scholars know that the artist saw value in the artifact, they aren’t sure of exactly why, and they can’t yet pinpoint the object’s cultural meaning.
Still, the team posits three theories. First, Fouquet may have included the handaxe because it was ubiquitous and well-known within his patron’s society. Other depictions of Saint Stephen from this time period also include rocks, but this specific stone may have been a particularly recognizable type of rock to the people of Northern France.
Along the opposite lines, the artifact may have been an exclusive object known only to the upper class, which would have made Chevalier, the treasurer for King Charles VII of France, look like an educated member of society.
Finally, the scholars acknowledge that the handaxe may have had a highly specific religious or cultural meaning, but they don’t have a guess as to what that may have been.
Many works from this time period featured Saint Stephen alongside the stones that martyred him. Now that they’ve published their work, Kangas told Hyperallergic he’s excited to look at images of other strangely shaped rocks in these depictions. A 16th-century wooden sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, features smooth, flat-surfaced stones. “I think that this research will further validate art history’s disciplinary insistence on close looking,” Kangas said, explaining that it can lead to discoveries outside of the field.
“The humanities and the sciences have a lot to learn from one another,” DeSilva told Hyperallergic. “[They] can collaborate on projects that investigate how humans have understood their world through time.”
“For me, that’s the most exciting thing,” said DeSilva.