In the right panel of Jean Fouquet’s Melun Diptych (circa 1455), the Virgin Mary sits with the baby Jesus, surrounded by angels. The left panel features the man who commissioned the work, Étienne Chevalier, treasurer for Charles VII of France, standing next to Saint Stephen, his patron saint. Saint Stephen holds the New Testament—and, on top of the book, a pear-shaped stone.
Art historians say the strange rock is a reference to Saint Stephen’s death by stoning as a Christian martyr. But its peculiarity caught the eye of Steven Kangas, an art historian at Dartmouth College, for other reasons.
“I’ve known about Fouquet’s painting for years, and I had always thought that the stone object looked like a prehistoric tool,” says Kangas in a statement from Dartmouth. “So, this was always sort of stuck in the back of my mind as something that I needed to pursue in the future.”
Then, in 2021, Kangas attended a talk about the Isimila site in Tanzania, which is known for its hand axes. The tool’s pointed ends and flaked appearance bore a strong resemblance to the stone in the painting, and Kangas realized he might have finally found the match.
Now, after a close analysis of the oil painting, Kangas and colleagues at Dartmouth and the University of Cambridge think the Melun Diptych is likely the earliest artistic representation of an Acheulean hand ax, a stone tool used by our human ancestors more than 500,000 years ago to dig and cut meat and wood. They published their findings in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.
Hand axes have “long been a source of fascination in social and cultural history,” per Dartmouth’s statement. Before their true origins were identified in the 17th and 18th centuries, early written records from the mid-1500s described the hand axes as “thunderstones,” which were believed to fall from the sky during thunderstorms. “Swiss physician and naturalist Conrad Gessner included a print showing thunderstones in his De Rerum fossilium (1565) and classified them as ‘jokes of nature,’” writes Forbes’ David Bressan. “Despite being of poor quality, the figure has long been regarded as the earliest artistic representation of a prehistoric stone ax.”
The Melun Diptych, however, predates Gessner’s work by more than a century.
To investigate their hunch, the researchers studied the shape of the stone in the painting, concluding that it was highly similar to the forms of other hand axes from the region where the Melun Diptych was painted.
They also analyzed the stone’s color, comparing it to a sample of 20 French Acheulean hand axes. While they admit that the painting’s hues could be distorted by pigment and varnishes, they found that the “color-variation on the object’s surface of yellow, brown and red hues was consistent with other hand ax artifacts.”
Finally, they counted 33 flake scars on the painted stone’s surface, which matched the average number of flake scars found on axes from the French collection.
Researchers have three theories as to why Fouquet might have included the hand ax in his work: “Perhaps such objects were common and familiar to his patron, Chevalier, and the broader population of northern France,” writes Ars Technica’s Jennifer Ouellette. ”Alternatively, such objects may have been rare and exclusive to the upper class, in which case its inclusion would identify Chevalier as an educated man of importance. Or perhaps it has a specific religious or cultural meaning that scholars don’t yet know about.”
While researchers can’t say for sure what the painter’s motives were, their analysis suggests the cultural fascination with hand axes is even older than previously thought.
“I love this idea of connecting a hand ax—a utilitarian object that helped hominins survive half a million years ago—with a medieval French painting, which is so well-known that it’s taught in introductory art history classes,” says co-author Jeremy DeSilva, an anthropologist at Dartmouth, in the statement. “From the Paleolithic Age to the Renaissance and beyond, hand axes have been—and continue to be—part of human history.”
Looking ahead, Kangas hopes to analyze other works from the period featuring Saint Stephen and strange stones, such as a 16th-century wooden sculpture at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as he tells Hyperallergic’s Elaine Velie.
“I think that this research will further validate art history’s disciplinary insistence on close looking,” he adds.