Images of the Virgin Mary: a fleet-footed online tour of the collections

The present series, to which a new text will be added every two weeks, takes what may seem a rather contemporary approach: works of art are presented from the point of view of the person portrayed—the Virgin Mary.
We would like to provide a gentle note of reminder: sympathetic identification with the protagonist was the original purpose of precious votive paintings, long before such works came to be exhibited in museums in the 19th century.

An exclusive view

Jan Gossaert, called Mabuse, St. Luke Painting the Virgin, c. 1520, KHM, Gemäldegalerie, Inv. no. 894

An angel with gorgeous wings leads the hand of the painter, who is the hero of the piece. St. Luke wears a heavy red gown edged with fur.

Beneath his eyes a delicate drawing in ink takes shape. The artist is nearly finished, for I have hovered in the room for some time. Through the power of divine inspiration, the very first portrait of me has been fashioned.

Only he can see the angel and me.

The invisible is made visible. A vision is transformed into the material. Thoughts become pictures.

Moses must look on helplessly, a stone shadow of himself. He thrones above the scene ensconced in magnificent Renaissance architecture, a pale reminder. The Old Testament prohibition of graven images having long since been qualified.

Yet: recently disagreement has been voiced on this matter. Martin Luther has just revived the discussion. Can one secure salvation by donating painted pictures? Should not this “mistaken” use of pictures be ended without delay?

Rogier van der Weyden, Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, 1440, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

In these ideologically restless times Jan van Gossaert apparently adopted a moderate position. He did not place the scene in a luxuriously appointed atelier, but within the precincts of a church.

Above all, I myself, in strict accordance with orthodox tradition, am not a model of flesh and blood, but a divine apparition.

Angles bear me.

A suggestion of luxury nonetheless surrounds the painter—I already remarked on his costly garments.

He and his colleagues joined together in the many guilds of St. Luke that were established in art centres according to commissions and material encouragement. Has the artist here been reformed? Will he cast off his fine raiment as he has already done with his shoes?

This question remains open.

written by written by Cäcilia Bischoff, translated by Joshua Stein on 8.3.2018 in #Marienbilder
to top