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Ardent Desire

The Squire of the Heart

By Paul MerkleyPublished 12 months ago Updated 12 months ago 8 min read
By Nicolas Froment -, Public Domain,

No, the honor is mine, sir. You are the herald of his most Christian majesty the King of France. Now that your king has inherited all the earthly property and possessions of the happy memory of my illustrious Lord René, you need to understand everything about his state that a herald needs to know. The names, the references, the traditions. Everything! I was his favorite painter. This was my honor. This is my honor. I asked to meet with you here, before this painting, because it is my best piece and it explains so very much.

The first point to understand is René himself: poet, author, painter, soldier, patron, lover, devout Christian, mental pilgrim. Ah well yes, all of those are true. He himself learned the art of painting from D'Eyck, and he was one of the first to use oils. With oils the colors are better, the outcome is better, the duration is longer, and one can correct, one can paint over a mistake or something that does not come out well. Oh no, I do not always paint the perfect image the first time!

You know he fought beside his majesty the King of France and the Maid, and you know they won France back from the English. I imagine you also know that he departed from that campaign to defend his own lands, he was captured by the Duke of Burgundy and was held as a prisoner for eight years. What did he have to occupy himself in all of those years? The library and his painting. Like Lancelot, he found his liberation through painting. In his mind he travelled to many places. When he was released, he still could not travel everywhere, so he sent his painters to Jerusalem to bring back images of that land, so that he could contemplate them and travel there in his lofty mind.

The heart of his territory, the part that he never ceded to the French crown, was Provence, the holiest land in Europe. When Mary Magdalene was put to sea in a boat without a rudder, the Romans thinking that she and her companions would drown, where did Spirit cause the waves to bring her ship to? Marseille. She converted the whole territory to Christianity. We venerate her to this day.

The Hundred Years War ended. Prisoners were released. René's daughter was married to the King of England to guarantee a peace between the nations. That turned into the bloody War of the Roses. But I digress. We should look at my painting. Do you know how to follow the directions in this triptych? It must be read in the shape of a cross, but also in the correct order: first from the left to the lower center panel, then from there to the top. From the top center back to the bottom again, then again from the left panel across the center and to the right. That is the way to read my painting.

Left to right: René is shown kneeling before a prie-Dieu with the gradual on it, just as was specified to me in the commission. It is covered with a pattern of the fleur-de-lys, naturally, because he was a peer of France. Behind him are his patron saints. Ermine is on his shoulders because he was a king, the King of Naples and the King of Jerusalem, even though he never set foot there. He certainly contemplated on its sacred sites and relics. He could count his lineage back through the kings to Jesus himself, then from Jesus back to the great King David. This is the reason I was told to inscribe the names of the twelve kings of Judah on the frame of the central panel.

I painted René gazing at the centre panel. In the background is the city of Avignon, where René kept a residence for his frequent travels there, and his castle of Saumur. As the main figure I was asked to paint the scene of Moses and the Burning Bush. The almoner told me that our sovreign had read the texts of a Byzantine order that venerated that Biblical scene. "Think of it," he said, "a fire that burned, and that would not be extinguished, and issuing from the center of that fire, the voice of God Himself." Can you imagine what it is like to be given the task to paint such holy images, the figures of a king who wants them for his death chapel? I put my whole heart and intellect on this work. I needed it to be perfect in every detail.

Center panel, bottom to top: there is an antiphon on the Feast of Circumsion, the day of Gift Giving, that tells of the burning bush: 'When we think of the burning bush that Moses saw, we think of the ineffable virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus.' The fire that consumes but will not consume itself, the virginity of the mother of our Saviour. Of course that antiphon was made into a much grander piece of music by the court composer, Josquin Desprez, The Prince of Musicians. Rubum quem viderat Moyses, The Bush that Moses saw, LINK:

I was told to paint the burning bush in the heavens above the head of Moses, not exactly as it described in the Bible, but just as it was imagined by the Byzantine brothers. Why, you ask? Because Moses himself was also a mental pilgrim. He must have meditated on the past and future of his religion, his people. Think of that moment, what he must have seen and understood. Think what it would be like for that moment to experience the Time of God. There is the Time of Man and the Time of God. The Time of Man stretches out in a line. To God all Time is eternally present. This is what René had his almoner explain to me for the painting.

Mary was chosen as the vessel for Christ before the thunder that shook creation, so she was eternally present, and as Moses turned his mind upwards to see the burning bush and hear the voice in the fire, he perceived Mary and the infant Jesus. Was he looking at the future? Yes, and also at the past. The baby in her arms redeemed Adam and Eve, whom I painted as badges on the angel's chest below.

So you see the direction of the painting in the center panel first goes up, following the gaze and thought of Moses, then the grace of Mary and Jesus flows downward, blessing Avignon and Saumur, and releasing Adam and Eve, in the Harrowing of Hell, another beautiful piece of music that Josquin wrote. All of these elements were specified in my instructions.

So following the grace of God (Mary, Jesus, and the Voice of God in the fire), we return to earth with Moses, and begin again with the left panel. René is looking at Moses, who is looking at the fire, but what else does the fire mean to my Lord? Everything has multiple meanings.

The antiphon falls on New Year's Day, the Feast of Circumcision, and the day of gift giving. There is a story in Martial d'Auvergne's delightful book The Laws of Love. A lady promises to gift her lover well on New Year's Day, and he prepares the room for their love making. To assist in creating the right mood, he pays musicians to perform the chanson 'Ardent desir,' That is the name of one of the main characters in the book written by René, The Book of the Heart Taken by Love. It is a story of René's dream, in which his heart is taken out of his body to go on a quest to save Lady Mercy. His heart is a knight, and he named his squire Ardent Desire. After he wrote the book, he had the motto Ardent Desire inscribed on all of his castles. Oh and as a herald you must know René's herald, and you must know that his nickname is, yes, Ardent Desire. René wanted to be surrounded by his literature and references all of the time.

I am telling you this so that you understand. The spiritual meaning of the burning bush I have already explained. It is the voice of God that Moses heard on the mountain. The secular significance, the equivalent meaning outside of religion, is Ardent Desire, the song that the lover caused to be played on the day on which the antiphon of the burning bush was performed, the character in René's story, the words chiselled into his castles, and yes, as we follow my Lord's gaze across the center panel to the figure of Jeanne de Laval, reading her book of hours and wearing a crown, with her patron saints, it is a symbol of the king's ardent or burning desire for his consort. This is a desire that burns but it will not be extinguished. It is a flame that will not go out, even in death. So my painting remains in the death chapel, showing his intense, undying love, even after he has died. My painting weighs half a ton and I used only oils. People will admire it for hundreds of years!

Ah well yes, that is a good question. What was the occasion for starting it? Why did he have me start it in 1475? You are French, so you know the diasgreement, the controversy over the birth of Mary. Was the mother of the mother of Jesus also a virgin? Was Mary herself born of a virgin? Many in France called that heresy. Church councils debated it. The University of Paris took a position and expelled anyone who disagreed. The Franciscan order espoused the doctrine. The pope did not.

René believed in this virgin birth. He read it in The Golden Legend, the book of the lives of the saints. He counted it as one of the Five Joys of Mary. When he made his own order of knights they were required to celebrate an office dedicated to the Virgin Mary every day, or to fast if they could not. His own book of hours has the text of the Five Joys, to be read for this office, daily. It could not be read in the Cathedral of Saint-Sauveur in Aix, because the pope did not acknowledge this doctrine, but then the pope died, and Sixtus IV was named the new pontiff. He was a Franciscan.

Overnight the Immaculate Conception of the mother of Mary became church doctrine, and then it could be celebrated. Immediately René gave two orders. First he commanded Josquin to set the text to music for his choir. It is to me the most beautiful music of the age:

The second order was for me to paint this triptych. I had painted altarpieces, large portraits, and murals on walls in my Lord's residence in Avignon, but this is my masterpiece, my greatest work. It holds all of the beauty, love, and understanding of my Lord's magnificent mind. It shows all that he held dear. It is a testament to his eternal virtue, that will light the way for centuries to come. And now you understand. And it will light your way too. As the thunder of creation shakes your life and mine, we will be guided by these thoughts and images, for we are all mental pilgrims, whether we admit it or not.

InspirationHistoryFine Art

About the Creator

Paul Merkley

Co-Founder of Seniors Junction, a social enterprise working to prevent seniors isolation. Emeritus professor, U. of Ottawa. Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Founder of Tower of Sound Waves. Author of Fiction.

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