Paintings and Evidence

last edited on Wed. March 18 2015

In the 1950s, eminent art historian Erwin Panofsky studied the fifteenth-century German panel titled Royal Saint with Ring, which is now part of the Smart's collection. He studied the painting like a detective, analyzing iconographic elements, the calligraphic lettering hidden under the frame, and other clues.

Panofsky wasn't able to make a firm attribution or identification. But recently unearthed correspondence sheds light on his thinking and process—and the delight of looking and studying a painting closely.

Some thought the painting to be Germanic in origin, but "in spite of the rather Germanic plants" Panofsky inclined toward Flemish origins and the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden:

An inscription hidden behind the frame seemed to be a tantalizing clue:

However, decoding the inscription introduced other complications:

Study Royal Saint with Ring for yourself and read Panofsky's full assessment in the micro-exhibition Paintings and Evidence, co-curated by Iva Olah and Hannah Klemm, in the Smart's 40th anniversary exhibition Objects and Voices.

Excerpts from Panofsky's correspondence courtesy of Gerda Panofsky.

The face has, in my opinion, a definitely Rogerian cast, and the whole figure and costume—short coat, spindly legs, etc.—reminds me very strongly of those drawings, portraying members of the Burgundian dynasty, which were produced in Roger's workshop about 1455.

Concerning the inscription, I have, I believe, succeeded with the help of three strong men from our paleographic department, in reading most of it. To the best of our collective knowledge, it reads as follos: EGBERT[US] CO[N]NY[W]CK P[RAE]SUL[IS] BRG[incomplete], in other words, 'Egbertus Connynck, preaeslis Brg[ensis] [bishop of Bruges].'"

The unfortunate thing is that this inscription does not help much as far as the iconography of the picture is concerned. In fact, it seems that it was written, not after but before the picture was painted…the panel would have been destined for our Egbertus but subsequently had been used for an entirely different purpose.