This pair of portraits, in which the rendering of the faces, hands and costume is exceptionally well-preserved, has the added distinction of being presented in its native diptych frame--a rare survival--including the original hinges and, on the verso of the left wing, an elaborate and unusual armorial tree. We are indebted to Jan van Helmont for interpreting this genealogy and providing information on the family.
Placed in the centre of the verso panel are the arms of the sitters: on the dexter side, those of the male sitter, a gentleman of the van Zuudt family; beside them, those of his wife, a lady of the can Heinsberghe family. Her lozenge-shaped shield displays the arms of her husband impaled with those of her father, emblematising the union of their families; the stylised ribbons behind her shield are lacs d'amour (love knots), symbolising her love for her husband. The personal arms of the sitters are repeated in their portraits, where the arms of the gentleman are also painted in reverse on his signet ring.
Branching out from the sitter's personal arms on the verso panel are those of their ancestors: The gentleman's paternal grandparents were named van Zuudt and van der Hulst; his maternal grandparents were van der Meersch and Hellin. The lady's paternal grandparents were van Heinsberghe and van Steenackere; her maternal grandparents were de Vriendt and van Spiere.
Written beside the arms of the sitters is 'Vaert wel in hope', a punning motto with a range of nuanced meanings. It can mean 'Fare well in hope'; 'Sail safely loaded heavily'; and 'Get well in abundance'; 'hope' can be understood as meaning 'Faith in God', while the imperative vaert can be read 'do ship', suggesting that the gentleman sitter would have been a wealthy merchant and ship-owner.
The van Zuudt family were a wealthy clan of burghers with branches in Damme and Brussels, and elsewhere in the provinces of East and West Flanders, especially on the French-Flemish border in cities such as Menen (Menin), Kortrijk (Courtrai), Wervik (Wervicq), Ieper (Ypres), Bruges, and others.
Jan van Helmont notes that the Lille Archives du Nord (série B, no. 1828) contain Royal Letters from Charles V and Philip II dated 1554-1563, recording the mortgaging of royal tax income on herring shipped from Dunkerque by merchants including a certain 'Pieter van Zuudt'. This Pieter van Zuudt may indeed be the gentleman portrayed in this diptych, although it remains to be established whether any record exists of his marriage to a lady of the van Heinsberghe family. The fur collar worn by the gentleman indicates his tenure of an important position, perhaps as an alderman, mayor, baljuw or maître des comptes.
While all of the family names given in the armorial family tree are Flemish, this does not rule out the possibility that the painter could be from another part of Europe, given the mobility of artists in the Low Countries during the fifteenth century, and especially as the sitters seem to belong to a wealthy trading family which may have had connections with far-flung cities in Europe; a possible attribution to Dirck Jacobsz. (Amsterdam c. 1487-1567) has been suggested.