Text by Geoffrey Smith
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The Virgin Mary stands holding her child in a late Gothic archway as if she were presenting the Christ child to the viewer. She is accompanied by four angels – one plays a harp, another a lute – two hover above the Queen of Heaven holding her crown. Mary is absorbed with her child, her eyes lowered in contemplation of this divine being – her baby – which she clasps tightly to her, temporarily oblivious to our gaze. The child however turns away, balancing himself by grasping a tress of his mother’s beautifully crimped hair, and engages the viewer directly, as does the lute-playing angel.
David uses other methods to reinforce our empathy with mother and child – saintly parent and divinity. At the foot of the painting a low step has the effect of marking the boundary between us and the holy company. But, in his efforts to instil our sense of inclusion, he overcomes this necessary demarcation by extending the pictorial space a little further towards the viewer, drawing us in to the drama of the miraculous appearance of God in our midst. The exquisitely rendered scene which can be glimpsed through the doorway, realised with consummate perspectival skill, also creates a believable space within which we can imagine our participation. Especially if you happened to live in Bruges at around the turn of the 16th century, for beyond the walled garden is a recognisable ‘portrait’ of that city (although a denizen of the town would have been most surprised, had he climbed to the top of the tower shown so prominently behind the Virgin, to have seen a range of craggy mountains in the distance).
In the enclosed garden we can deduce from the presence of the small figure of a member of the Carthusian order against the far wall that the well worn path has been used by monks for exercise and contemplation. His inclusion means that in all probability this painting was commissioned by a member of his order.
Growing in the garden close to the gateway, on either side of the Virgin two plants are flourishing – plants that are very often seen in the paintings of this period in close proximity to Mary. To her left, the iris is a symbol of purity but it also has leaves which were thought to look like a sword thereby chiming with Luke’s passage referring to Mary’s future sorrows ‘Yea and a sword shall pierce through thine own soul.’ To her right a columbine grows, a flower which symbolises the presence of the holy spirit (in the form of a dove, because of the similarity of its name to the Latin for dove, columba). It has a further significance as it often produces seven simultaneous blooms which were seen as representing the seven sorrows of the Virgin.
David’s refined and beautiful paintings can be seen as the last flowering of the Eykian tradition – he assimilated the styles of the great exponents of the early Northern Renaissance – van Eyck, van der Goes, Memling and Bouts. One might think that things had not moved on too much since the death of van Eyck 70 years before and it is interesting to note that Raphael was working on his great frescoes in the Vatican at about the time David was engaged in producing this little masterpiece. Their difference in style reflects the fact that David and Raphael worked in two very different centres of Renaissance art and produced images that reflected the desires and tastes of their markets and patrons.
There are several notable works by David in New York, at both the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection, however this small work stands out as one of the most exquisite.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1510 Albrecht Altdorfer: St George Slaying the Dragon, Munich, Alte Pinakothek
1515 Matthias Grünewald: The Isenheim Altarpiece, Colmar, Musée Unterlinden