The Virgin Mary in Northern Renaissance Art

The Virgin Mary in Northern Renaissance art was the model for good motherhood, nurturing Christ, and, by extension, nurturing all of his followers. The Virgin's image in Flemish painting of the fifteenth to early sixteenth century increasingly emphasized her role in raising and nourishing the Son of God. During the early Northern Renaissance, artists depicted the Virgin Mary as the wholesome ideal of motherhood in more domestic settings and occupations than previously, influenced by changing popular attitudes towards women, changing devotional practice, and Church doctrine espousing matrimony as well as virginity as a righteous way of life. Artists associated the Madonna's image with nourishing attributes, frequently painting Mary in her Madonna del latte form with one breast exposed to suckle her baby, or presenting Christ with fruit to eat. As private devotion through the use of pious images became more prevalent, artists depicted the Virgin Mary more often in domestic Flemish settings, which helped the viewer to identify with her and enter the realm of the abstract.

Art historians link the Virgin's image with societal attitudes towards ordinary women, as well as the religious dogma surrounding Christ’s Incarnation. Images reflect the socioeconomic factors of their origins and transmit social norms of womanhood.1 Henry Kraus has argued that the depiction of Mary evolves with changes in ordinary women's social status and societal attitudes towards them.2 Grewe states that during the Northern Renaissance, images recorded women’s actual roles and status in society, but also projected ideals of feminine behavior disseminated in society that did not correspond with reality.3 During the Medieval period, ordinary women were depicted as inherently evil, stained with the legacy of Eve's sin and unable to achieve the glory of the Virgin Mary. During the Byzantine, icons of Mary focused on her virginity and holiness in preference to her motherhood. Over time, as women's social situation improved through the ability to inherit land or take professions, Mary's virtue became more attainable for women.4 Mary was gradually depicted as more human and her relationship with Christ became more affectionate. The Northern Renaissance saw women losing much of the progress they had made towards equality with men. Guilds restricted women’s access to respectable professions, and although property and inheritance laws remained fairly static through the Renaissance, the selective adoption of Roman laws which favored the husband’s right over his wife and rejection of laws protecting the wife’s control over her possessions led to an erosion of female sovereignty.5 Cordula Grewe believes that a parallel development in church doctrine, which espoused motherhood and family as a religious way of life, was part of the concerted effort to control women and limit their economic power to the domestic sphere.6 Society considered women to have higher sexual needs than men in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, so that celibacy was an unrealistic ideal for them. Families felt that they had to keep a watchful eye on young women until they could be safely married.7 According to Maryan Ainsworth, the writings of prominent scholars such as Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, Sir Thomas More, and Juan Luis Vives endorsed the emerging idea that matrimony and domesticity were preferable to celibacy.8

Early Christians such as saints Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome in the late fourth and early fifth centuries urged married couples to voluntarily abstain from sexual relations as Mary and Joseph did. Thomas of Aquinus in his Summa Theologiae revived the Augustinian view of sexual intercourse in popular opinion as sinful even within the divinely sanctioned institute of marriage. Cordula Grewe states that with the developing movement of Humanism, authors became proponents of matrimony as an important component of life.9 In the late middle ages celibacy was the ideal, but the majority of Christians were not expected to follow this ideal; those who did lived in monastic communities separate from secular life. In the thirteenth century, new mendicant orders arose which had a much greater interaction with the general religious community, or laity, because they depended on almsgiving and charitable donations, rather than income from their real estate assets.10 The Franciscan and Dominican orders, which gained popularity in the fourteenth century, sought to bridge the gap between the cloistered ascetics and the laity by embracing matrimony as a path to follow God’s will. As a result of this new attitude, marriage became one of the sacraments, sanctified acts which bring the Christian closer to God.11 These orders built their friaries in the center of bustling towns to facilitate their interaction with the laity, ministering directly to the people and displaying their devotional practices as models for lay people.12

The general religious community began implementing the monastic technique of praying using visual art as a focus.13 Members of the ducal courts and the developing middle class had the means to purchase small works of art for their private devotion in the public art markets that became established in the late fifteenth century in Bruges and Antwerp.14 Concerned that others would consider them to be committing idolatry, they rationalized their practice by saying that they prayed not to the art itself, but to the God whose acts it represented. The worshiper used these artworks as a way to touch the untouchable, to make the unreal seem more real, and to bring the divine closer to home. They used art as a memory aid and a focus for meditation, seeking to transcend the mundane world and enter the spiritual realm. The Madonna served as an intermediary between devotees and God, and artwork helped them to personally identify with the Madonna and Child15 by depicting them as a Flemish mother and her baby. Artists brought the Madonna and Child down to earth to enhance this identification.

Artists presented two contrasting manifestations of the Virgin Mary in the Northern Renaissance: the Madonna in Majesty and the Madonna of Humility. The former reminded the viewer of her holiness by associating her with the trappings of royalty, while the latter reminded the viewer of her humanity and her role as intercessor between the poor mortals of the world and their God. Most of the Flemish artists painted the Virgin in both ways, but the Madonna of Humility became more prevalent as the fifteenth century progressed. Mary's image in Flemish paintings evolved from the grave princesses of van Eyck in the early 1400s to the placid matrons of David in the early 1500s. Each of the significant artists during this time period had his own distinctive style, and these do not always fit into a neat progression from one style to the next. However, broad changes in the treatment of common subjects can be outlined.

Christians began making recognizable art in the early third century, with Mary an infrequent theme. In the year 431, the Council of Ephesus declared that Mary was the Mother of God, leading to a proliferation of Madonna icons.16 During the Byzantine, which lasted from around the fourth century to the thirteenth century, images of the Madonna and Child depicted Mary detachedly displaying Christ, who often seems to be a small adult rather than a helpless baby, in a formal and often otherworldly setting [fig. 1]. These icons emphasized her virginity over her maternity, downplaying the part that she played in the life of Jesus Christ. They stressed her fitness as a pure vessel for the Incarnation and her obedience to her God. An obscure type of Byzantine icon known as the Galaktotrophousa, or “she who nourishes with milk,” represents the Virgin Mary with one breast exposed, nursing Christ.17 This image became very popular in the Northern Renaissance, becoming known as the Madonna del Latte or the Virgo Lactans. Elizabeth Bolman cautions against associating the nursing Virgin with the modern notion of breastfeeding as a valuable gift given to the precious young. She states that late Antique and early Byzantine society did not consider nursing an essential part of motherhood; nursing was associated with slaves or wet-nurses, while mothers entered their children’s lives when they turned seven, the proper age to begin moral instruction.18

In these icons, Mary’s relationship with Christ was cold and distant. This may have been because, in the Byzantine conception, Christ was not dependent on his mother for his conception or sustenance, which were both his Father’s doing. One of the prevailing theories about the mechanism of sexual reproduction at the time came from the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), who stated that women provided the raw material to create a baby, whereas men provided the life force that shaped the baby. Christian doctrine held that Mary provided the material for Jesus’ humanity, whereas God provided him with his life force and his soul.19 Similarly, God gave Christ the milk he needed to grow. Writers such as Clement of Alexandria in the second century stated that the milk that flowed from the Madonna’s breast was “liquid flesh” delivered from God, because Mary, as a virgin, was incapable of producing breast milk.20 Mary was simply a passive medium for God's Incarnation, and hardly more important than the throne on which she sat.

Northern Renaissance subjects were influenced by Byzantine prototypes as the Roman Catholic Church clashed with the Eastern Orthodox Church, bringing Northern artists into contact with Byzantine icons. The Galaktotrophousa became extremely popular in the West, because of the many legends surrounding its ability to work miracles.21 The purpose of images of the Madonna and Child changed over time: early icons were considered to literally have the power to work miracles, whereas later paintings presented the Virgin Mary as merely a devotional image, a reminder of events in the Bible that one could identify with readily. The mystical Cambrai Madonna achieved revered status as an icon because of its history and powerful miraculous qualities [fig. 2]. A legend formed that it had been painted by Saint Luke himself, the first artist to depict the Virgin Mary. This popularity was reflected in Rogier van der Weyden's Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin.

One of the earliest 15th century Flemish painters of the ars nova (new art) was Robert Campin, also known as the Master of Flemalle, who painted the Virgin in both exalted and domestic settings. Campin’s paintings of the Virgin Mary are highly idiosyncratic, in keeping with his three-dimensional, plastic style. Although they do not conform with modern conceptions of beauty, they have a stolid tenderness. His Madonna with a Firescreen, c. 1430, sits in a genre-like interior, with only disguised symbolism to mark her significance [fig. 3]. She holds her breast as though for Christ to nurse, though his position would not permit him to comfortably do so. Mary’s role in Christ's story was becoming more proactive than in the Byzantine, and people began considering her a co-redeemer with Christ. A compilation of Franciscan writings, the Stimulus amoris, links Mary’s gift of milk to Christ with Christ’s gift of blood to the world: "Good lady, then take our little heart and vouchsafe for to lay it in thy bosom, between thy blessed paps and feed it and drink it with the sweetness of thy breast. And anoint it with the blood of thy son Jesus Christ..."22 Although, as in the Byzantine, many women of means in the fifteenth century did not breastfeed their children themselves, this was a societal ideal. Depictions of Mary nursing Christ probably did relate directly to motherhood; indeed, "visual images of the nursing Virgin may have been a deliberate message to women, in line with popular sermons, urging their emulation of the mother of Christ.23

Despite the humble setting, Frances Pitts has suggested that the Madonna with a Firescreen should not properly be termed a Madonna of Humility. Pitts cites as evidence the Madonna's richly furred, bejeweled robe and the significance of the view from the window, which indicates that she sits on the upper floor of a house, a convention suggesting the realm of heaven.24 In the Northern Renaissance, the Madonna del Latte was traditionally associated not with the Madonna of Humility, as in the Italian Renaissance, but with the Queen of Heaven. This makes the humility of Campin's Madonna more apparent, because as the Queen of Heaven, she is humbling herself to nurse Christ in a simple Flemish domicile.25

In the Madonna with a Firescreen, the hearth behind Mary’s head is imbued with symbolic significance. Carra Ferguson O’Meara somewhat tenuously relates the hearth flames to the roasting of the Old Testament sacrifice of the paschal lamb. She associates Christ with the paschal lamb, because people consume both in celebrating the Eucharist.26 The hearth may also relate to the baking of bread: hearths and baker’s ovens were similar functionally, and both visually resembled altars. Thomas of Aquinas associated the baking of bread with Christ's formation in Mary's womb.27 Reindert Falkenburg states that Flemish devotional texts from the mid-15th century to the mid-16th century, drawing on the biblical Song of Songs, emphasize the role of enjoying food in creating empathy between lovers, or between believers and their God. He provides abundant examples of such texts, including one entitled “Die rose onse here” (The rose of our Lord), from the late 15th century, which includes this reference to the Eucharist: “The holy and complete body that hung and withered on the cross tastes to the true devout as a well-cooked spring lamb and as a fresh well-baked heavenly loaf of bread soaked in honey.”28 Campin's reference to Christ as lamb and bread in his Madonna with a Firescreen may relate to these prevailing images. Robert Campin depicted the Madonna as a heavy, simple peasant girl in modest, domestic settings, although his symbolism marked her as the Mother of God.

More formal than Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck (c.1399- 1441) depicted Mary in her majesty, often in church interiors or symbolizing the Church. A recurring theme in van Eyck's work was the incorporation of elements of the traditional betrothal and marriage ceremonies. Referring to the Song of Songs,29 he frequently presented the Madonna as the bride and the Christ child as the bridegroom, referring to the customary wedding practices to which the laity were accustomed.30 Painted in 1439, the Virgin and Child at the Fountain was a particularly influential example, copied numerous times over a period of about eighty years [fig. 4]. The prayer beads that Christ holds in this painting may stand for the beads given by a bridegroom to his bride in medieval Flemish betrothals. Christ's imminent coronation of the Virgin as the Queen of Heaven represents the spiritual consummation of her relationship with him as well as her triumph over death.31 Virgin and Child at the Fountain presents the Madonna and Child in a hortus conclusus, an enclosed garden which represents her virginity. The Virgin has a youthful, soft face, while Christ is a small, weak-looking baby. The roses in the garden prefigure the new Marian devotional practice of the Rosary that became widespread later in the fifteenth century.32

Jan van Eyck’s Virgins are solemn and majestic, often termed “princess-like” in their beautiful gravity. Van Eyck's Mary is unmistakably the mother of God. The Virgin in the Madonna with Chancellor Nicolas Rolin, painted c. 1435, illustrates van Eyck's practice of involving the viewer in his devotional works by emphasizing the intimate relationship between Mary and Christ [fig. 5]. The Virgins in the Madonna with Canon George van der Paele of 1436 and the Lucca Madonna, c. 1434-1435, are nearly identical. Both Virgins sit on thrones with similar floral draperies and wear thick red robes with embroidered edges which fall to the ground in a roughly triangular pattern, lending them a monumental grandeur. Both Virgins wear a curious double ring on their ring fingers. This may refer to Mary's earthly marriage to Joseph and spiritual union with the Lord in the form of Jesus Christ, or it may refer to the subtler double sense in which van Eyck understood the latter union, with Mary representing both the mother and the Church.33

In the Madonna and Child with Canon George van der Paele, Mary expresses her love for Christ by presenting him with a flower to enjoy [fig. 6]. Many Northern Renaissance images of Mary show her offering fruit or flowers to her holy son. Reindert Falkenburg has argued that, as the faithful consume Christ's body and blood in the Christian ritual of the Eucharist, the love between Christ and Mary was expressed through consumption and experienced through pleasing sensations of taste and scent. Contemporary Flemish viewers, steeped in complex medieval imagery, would have had no trouble believing that a tiny nursing baby could partake in solid food such as fruit.34 Falkenburg states that the Virgin Mary always gives and never receives nourishment. She never eats fruit or savors floral perfume; her role is to nourish and sustain Christ. This pattern of self-denial in favor of her son reflects favorably on her as a mother.

Van Eyck placed the Madonna and Child in the center of the painting, but the action seems to take place around them. St. George presents the canon to St. Donatian, who represents the Church. The canon cannot seem to see the holy figures around him; van Eyck informs the viewer that he is near-sighted by depicting him holding heavy spectacles. Bret Rothstein has suggested that the painting depicts and hopes to engender a type of meditation in which the visual senses are sublimated into ecstatic worship.35 He states that in the fifteenth century, worshipers used devotional images such as the Madonna and Child to make the abstract more concrete and approachable, and then sought to transcend such visual representations to understand the spiritual knowledge they represented.36 Rothstein claims that the very realism of the Madonna and Child with Canon George van der Paele, with its accurate lighting and almost tangible textures, seduces the viewer into focusing on the reality of the image; van Eyck contrasts this attachment to the physical world with the canon's spirituality.37

The Lucca Madonna is centrally located in a slightly incongruent domestic interior setting, as if a queen’s throne were placed into a Flemish house [fig. 7]. The Lucca Madonna, a Madonna del Latte, gazes tenderly but sternly down at her holy offspring, who seems wholly engrossed in nursing at her breast. In Christ's left hand, where it should be hidden in shadow, is a tiny reddish-gold apple which draws the viewer's attention precisely because Jan van Eyck seems to have highlighted it. The symbolism of the apple related to the biblical couple with which Christ and Mary were most closely associated: Adam and Eve. The iconographic significance of the apple relates both to Christ and Mary's redemption of the Fall of Man and to their loving spousal relationship, as described in the Song of Songs. The twelfth century abbot Rupert of Deutz interpreted a passage about the bride and bridegroom in the Canticle of Canticles, "Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat the fruit of his apple trees" (Canticle V, 1), in the context of Mary's role as the antithesis to Eve:

[Eve] invited her husband to eat an apple not her own, an apple of another, a forbidden fruit; I invite my beloved to his own garden to eat the fruit of apple trees, not of another, but the fruit of his own apple trees, as he says, "My food is to do the will of the Father"38

Mary proffering Christ an apple has a different tenor than Eve's thoughtless gift, because of their immense holiness. Rupert of Deutz associated Christ's acceptance of the apple as his acceptance of his fate, and thus as a sign of his obedience to his Father.39 Deutz associated eating with obedience to God in a passage on the Book of Ezechiel: [Christ] will humble himself taking the form of a servant in order to eat bread before the Lord, that is, in order to obey God his Father..."40 Visually, Jan van Eyck draws a parallel between the golden apple Christ holds and the milk in Mary’s breast, clarifying the central theme of the Lucca Madonna as that of Christ and Mary's compliance with God's will.41 Even van Eyck, whose Virgins are among the queenliest in the Northern Renaissance, sometimes humbled his Virgins by placing them in domestic settings, as in the Lucca Madonna.

Although van Eyck’s paintings of the Virgin were influential, it was Rogier van der Weyden who established the Flemish style of depicting the Virgin. Van der Weyden had a more emotionally expressive style than Jan van Eyck, which lent itself to portraying the bond between Mary and her baby. Rogier van der Weyden developed a new type of diptych, with one panel depicting the Madonna and Child and the other depicting a pious donor worshiping her. One of the finest examples is the Jean de Gros diptych, c. 1450-1460; the left panel of the work captures van der Weyden’s distinctive feminine facial features [fig. 8]. His facial type for the Virgin was to become very popular among later artists, with her broad forehead, straight nose, pouting mouth, and small, rounded chin. His style was more linear than van Eyck, and he demarcated each of her features through outlines rather than tonal modeling. Although the Virgin is lovely and sweet, she averts her eyes from her son. The infant Christ is unusual lively and cheerful in Rogier van der Weyden’s work, which also influenced later artists.

St. Luke Painting the Virgin, painted around 1435-1440 by Rogier van der Weyden, refers to the famous Byzantine icon, the Cambrai Madonna [fig. 9]. The setting for this work obviously derives from Jan van Eyck’s Chancellor Rolin Madonna: the distant view of a river, trisected by columns, is a direct quotation from van Eyck. However, the Virgin is reversed in relation to the man who approaches her. This could be because paintings are read from left to right like texts, and placing the Virgin to the left gives her more emphasis. Rogier van der Weyden has also simplified the setting, which allows the viewer to focus on the Madonna and Child. According to James Snyder, Campin’s Virgins have the modesty of peasants, van Eyck’s have the delicacy of princesses, but Rogier van der Weyden’s Virgins embody the cultured Flemish wife.42

Influenced primarily by Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus' feminine faces seem to be derived from Jan van Eyck's more youthful, rounded faces, as in his Virgin and Child at the Fountain. Petrus Christus nevertheless developed his own, distinctive style of portraying the Virgin Mary. Virgin and Child in a Chamber, c. 1450-1455, indicates Christus’ admiration of van Eyck, with the classic Eyckian interior derived from his Arnolfini Marriage, but the Virgin appears very different from this precedent with her smooth, egg-shaped face [fig. 10]. The setting is more modest and homely than any of van Eyck's settings, and the Virgin's robes are simpler and plainer. James Snyder states that aside from the orb in Christ's hand, "the subject matter could easily be just a virtuous mother with her child in a scrubbed-clean home."43 Like all of Christus’ people, his Virgins are naive, with rounded, bulbous heads and small faces, as seen in paintings such as the Madonna of the Dry Tree, painted c.1462, the Exeter Madonna, c. 1450, and the Madonna and Child, c. 1450, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. The Budapest Madonna and Child was probably originally part of a triptych for home devotion [fig. 11]. The diaphragm arch, which leads the viewer’s eye into the painting, is a retardataire element. The statuettes on the columns at the sides of the painting represent Adam on the left and Eve on the right with the serpent. This is an overt reference to the Fall of Man, which necessitated the sufferings of Christ and Mary as the new Adam and Eve as atonement for humankind.

One of the artists influenced by Rogier van der Weyden's style of depicting the Virgin was Dirk Bouts. Bouts' Virgin and Child in the National Gallery of London, painted around 1465, is the most similar to van der Weyden’s prototype [fig. 12]. The Madonna's face is shown in a three-quarter view, with a smooth triangular shape and sharply defined nose. The Christ child sitting on the windowsill is also very similar to van der Weyden’s cheerful, bubbly babies. Bouts has added context to van der Weyden’s abstract setting in his painting, depicting the Virgin standing behind one window with another in the background. The earlier Dirk Bouts Virgin and Child in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, painted c. 1450, is softer, more motherly, and less elegant than the one in the National Gallery of London [fig. 13]. It showcases Bouts’ typical heavy-lidded, sleepy looking faces. James Snyder describes this Virgin as Dutch, with her blunt, strong fingers and flatter, tonally modeled face. This Virgin is more reminiscent of Jan van Eyck or even a sophisticated version of Petrus Christus than van der Weyden; her head is more smooth and egg-shaped than sharply triangular.

Like Dirk Bouts, Hugo van der Goes was influenced by Rogier van der Weyden. One of Hugo van der Goes' most important works, The Portinari Altarpiece, painted between 1475-76, focuses on the Virgin and her role in bringing Christ into the world [fig. 14-16]. Mary's relationship with Christ seems more distant than in Dirk Bouts' Madonna and Child paintings, as does her physical proximity to her child. However, various elements of the painting's meaning relate to her miraculous birth; thus, her role as mother is stressed even as the appearance of it is lacking. Tommaso Portinari commissioned the work from van der Goes for his family’s charity hospital, Santa Maria Nova, to demonstrate his generosity and benevolence. If the painting's theme refers to Mary's birthing process, as Julia Miller has suggested, it would have been most appropriate to hang in a hospital where many ordinary women wished for the ease of Mary's delivery.44

Mary is prominent and centrally placed in the Nativity scene that forms the center of the Portinari Altarpiece triptych, while Christ is frail and vulnerable, obviously in need of the Virgin's care [fig. 16]. As Christ cleansed the world of Adam's sin, Mary redeemed Eve's Original Sin. Mary's parallel redemptive position with Christ is shown through her willingness to accept her charge as the vessel of Christ's birth and her empathetic relationship with God. Mary vanquished the curse of Eve, which was daily manifested in women's suffering in pregnancy and childbirth, through her painless labor.45 Several themes in the painting advance the image of motherhood. Hugo van der Goes shows Mary's advanced pregnancy and Joseph's attentive care of her in the rare depiction of the Journey into Bethlehem theme in the left panel of the Portinari Altarpiece [fig. 14]. A strange anomaly in the positioning of the attendant saints on the right panel, with St. Margaret standing behind Maria Maddalena of the Portinari family and Mary Magdalene behind Margherita Portinari, becomes logical in the context of Mary's bearing of the Christ child [fig. 15]. St. Margaret was the principal patron saint of childbirth, and her presence near the Virgin would be appropriate and necessary. St. Margaret is also positioned close to the donor's wife Maria Maddalena Portinari, who was almost constantly pregnant and most likely sympathetic to the Virgin's needs.46 The saints' positions may also be switched because Maria Portinari's true patron saint was the Virgin herself; Mary Magdalene was only her secondary patron saint.47 Hugo van der Goes’ female faces show striking similarities. His Mary in the Portinari Altarpiece resembles several of the angels to the right of her, as well as St. Margaret in the right panel. Van der Goes’ Eve in the Fall of Man diptych, painted c. 1470, is perhaps the best example of his feminine ideal [fig. 17].

Hans Memling was strongly influenced by Rogier van der Weyden. He painted many images of the Madonna and Child during his career. Most of his depictions of the Madonna feature her enthroned and surrounded by admiring saints, but he also painted her in humbler settings. Several of his Madonna and Child paintings, including the Lisbon Virgin and Child, painted between 1485 and 1490, the Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove, c. 1487, and the Triptych of Benedetto Portinari, painted c. 1487, feature Mary offering Christ a piece of fruit. This symbolism creates the same identification of Christ and Mary with Adam and Eve as van Eyck's Lucca Madonna. As with the Lucca Madonna, Mary offers Christ an apple which is legitimately his own, stressing the moral contrast between the two biblical couples.

The Virgin and Child in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon was probably originally part of a diptych with a facing donor in the tradition of van der Weyden [fig. 18]. The setting is very simple, focusing the viewer’s complete attention on the Madonna and Child. The Virgin Mary stands outside an open window, leaning in to support Christ, who reclines on the windowsill. Christ reaches for the apple with his right hand, and his left leg is slightly raised and bent at the knee. Shown in a three-quarter view, unusual for Hans Memling, Mary’s face is similar to Rogier van der Weyden’s prototype, with her wide forehead, straight nose, and small chin, but her features are softened, less clearly delineated than van der Weyden’s faces. The setting of the Madonna and Child from the Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove is more ornate, including a stained-glass window, highly textured draperies, and a convex reflecting mirror in the tradition of van Eyck on the wall behind the Virgin [fig. 19]. The child’s position is nearly identical to the one in the Lisbon Virgin and Child, except that Christ is not yet grasping the apple, while the Madonna's face is frontal, more typical of Memling's style, and she offers the apple with her hand raised. The window features four medallions depicting a hand planting seeds in a garden, which represents the donor’s name: Nieuwenhove, “new garden.” The mirror functions to link the two halves of the diptych, reflecting the donor praying to the Virgin and subtly locating him in the same room with her. The center of the Triptych of Benedetto Portinari features the Christ child in a slightly different, more awkward position than the other two works: he grips the apple tightly in his left hand, forcing his left arm into an uncomfortable-looking arch [fig. 20]. This Virgin is again in a simple landscape in this work, as in the Lisbon Virgin and Child, but her facial features are nearly identical to those in the Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove. Memling's portrayal of the Virgin Mary was remarkably consistent throughout his career.

Memling’s successor in Bruges, Gerard David, painted the Virgin Mary several times in her exalted state as the Queen of Heaven, including such works as the Virgin and Child with Four Angels, painted c. 1505 [fig. 21]. This theme derives from Jan van Eyck's Virgin and Child at the Fountain, although David has modernized the setting with Italianate touches. As with van Eyck's painting, the work alludes to the religious metaphor of Christ and Mary as bridegroom and bride found in the Song of Solomon. David made the prayer beads in van Eyck's work into rosary beads, referring to the angel Gabriel's words at the Annunciation: "Hail Mary, full of grace." The rosary beads thus refer to Christ's conception. David entered the confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree in 1507 and donated the Virgin among Virgins to the Carmelite Convent of Sion two years later [fig. 22].48 The Virgin among Virgins showcases the Madonna in all her majesty as the Queen of Heaven sitting on a red-draped throne, crowned with twelve stars, representing the points of Carmelite rule.49 The grapes that the Christ child holds may refer to the Eucharist, but they also relate to another consumption motif. Mary's light hold on the stem refers to her personification found in Isaiah and Genesis as the "True Vine," with Christ the ripening fruit.50

More frequently, David depicted the Madonna in humbler surroundings, in his depictions of the Virgin and Child with the Milk Soup and the Rest on the Flight to Egypt. In one version of the Rest on the Flight to Egypt, painted around 1510 and presently housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Mary holds Christ in her lap as he reaches for a vine of grapes [fig. 23]. Maryan Ainsworth states that these grapes, like other fruit in Northern Renaissance painting, have at least two meanings: "the grapes may signify the nourishment of the faithful by the church, but they also carry Eucharistic meaning."51 Again, Mary is the True Vine and her son is the fruit of her devotion to God. The Madonna in this painting gains monumentality from her central position and the rough triangle created by the folds of her robes, but David softens the triangular effect that van Eyck employed by looping a fold of her robe up onto the ledge next to her. Her face is one of the sweetest of any depictions of the Virgin Mary.

One of David's paintings of the Virgin and Child with the Milk Soup, known as the Aurora Trust version and painted around 1515, contains disguised symbolism which highlights the lack of overt religious symbols in his other versions of the theme: Adam carved into the cupboard behind Mary, the Christ child holding a bunch of cherries instead of a spoon, and Christ fully naked, lacking the gossamer garment he wears in other versions [fig. 24].52 According to Maryan Ainsworth, this disguised symbolism marks David’s theme as the identification of Mary and Christ as the new Adam and Eve. The Virgin turns away from the carving of Adam to her nude son, the new Adam, who holds cherries representing the “fruit of paradise.”53 Mary is again Christ's metaphorical bride, offering him love and nourishment. Other versions of the Virgin and Child with the Milk Soup theme are notable in their lack of religious attributes [fig. 25]. These works could represent any loving Flemish mother tenderly feeding her child. Maryan Ainsworth states that David's paintings of the Virgin and Child with the Milk Soup and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt present Mary as an exemplar of motherhood “rather than an expression of church doctrine,” concurrent with the decrease in explicit religious symbolism in the early sixteenth century.54 However, as described above, the presentation of Mary as a good mother may itself be an expression of church doctrine. The robes of Gerard David's Virgins are simple and unadorned, leaving the viewer to focus on their especially delicate and lovely faces.

The presentation of the Madonna and Child motif in Flemish painting changed during the fifteenth century, becoming more maternal. Her setting became more domestic, while her features became more motherly. This may have been caused by societal pressures that kept women in the home, defining motherhood as their greatest contribution to society, or by the Church's emphasis on maternity as a path of virtue. People increasingly used devotional images of the Virgin Mary and Christ in their own homes, and they may have identified more with a Holy Family that appeared similar to a typical Flemish family. Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck appeared to be on opposite ends of the spectrum in painting the Madonna and Child, but Campin's Virgins may not be as humble as they seem, and Jan van Eyck's princesses sometimes sit in Flemish homes. One of the most influential artists who painted the subject was Rogier van der Weyden, whose distinctive feminine features were often repeated. The Virgin's motherliness culminated in the work of Gerard David. A consistent theme in Northern Renaissance painting was the depiction of the Madonna offering Christ milk from her breast or fruit. Artists drew parallels between the Old Testament couple Adam and Eve and their antithesis, Christ and Mary, drawing the circle of sin and redemption to a close. Northern Renaissance Madonnas of the fifteenth century reflect the Northern preoccupation with domesticity rather than grandeur.


1 Cordula Grewe, "Shaping Reality through the Fictive: Images of Women Spinning in the Northern Renaissance," Canadian Art Review (1992), 6.

2 Henry Kraus, "Eve and Mary: Conflicting Images of Medieval Women," in Feminism and art history: questioning the litany, ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 80.

3 Cordula Grewe, "Shaping Reality through the Fictive: Images of Women Spinning in the Northern Renaissance," Canadian Art Review (1992), 6.

4 Henry Kraus, "Eve and Mary: Conflicting Images of Medieval Women," in Feminism and art history: questioning the litany, ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 79-99.

5 Grewe, "Shaping Reality through the Fictive," 8.

6 Ibid., 8.

7 Melissa R. Katz, "Regarding Mary," in Divine Mirrors: the Virgin Mary in the visual arts, ed. Melissa R. Katz (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 41.

8 Maryan Ainsworth, Gerard David: Purity of Vision in an Age of Transition (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998), 308.

9 Grewe, "Shaping Reality through the Fictive," 3.

10 Katz, "Regarding Mary," 32.

11 Ibid., 63.

12 Ibid., 32.

13 Ibid., 32.

14 Ainsworth, Gerard David, 277.

15 Katz, "Regarding Mary," 33.

16 Ibid., 28.

17 Although modern viewers interpret the visible human body as erotic, these images were not intended to be titillating: Mary's body is usually completely enshrouded in her robe, her exposed breast appears as a disconnected appendage rather than part of her body, and her other breast is flat or not visible.

18 Elizabeth Bolman, "The enigmatic Coptic Galaktotrophousa and the cult of the Virgin Mary in Egypt," in Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium, ed. Maria Vassilaki, (Aldershot, Hants, England; Burlington, VT : Ashgate Publishing, 2005), 15.

19 Katz, "Regarding Mary," 52-53.

20 Elizabeth Bolman, "The enigmatic Coptic Galaktotrophousa and the cult of the Virgin Mary in Egypt," in Images of the Mother of God, 17.

21 Ainsworth, Gerard David, 259.

22 Frances Pitts, "Iconographic mode in Campin's London Madonna," Konsthistorisk Tidskrift 55 (1986), 92.

23 Margaret R. Miles, "The Virgin's One Bare Breast," in The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History, ed. Norma Broude and Mary Garrard, (New York: Icon Editions, 1992), 30.

24 Ibid., 93.

25 Ibid., 93.

26 Ibid., 90.

27 Ibid., 90.

28 Reindert L. Falkenburg, The Fruit of Devotion: Mysticism and the imagery of love in Flemish paintings of the Virgin and Child, 1450-1550, trans. Sammy Herman (Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1994), 42.

29 The most important literary source to understand such elements of the Virgin's image in the Northern Renaissance was the biblical "Song of Songs," which described the sensual love between a bride and her bridegroom with a variety of botanical metaphors. Contemporary exegeses of this passage interpret Christ as the bridegroom, while his beloved has been seen as the Church, the believer, or Mary herself identified with the Church.

30 Carol J. Purtle, The Marian Paintings of Jan van Eyck (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982), 169.

31 Ainsworth, Gerard David, 268.

32 James Snyder, Northern Renaissance Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985), 102.

33 Purtle, The Marian Paintings of Jan van Eyck, 110-111.

34 Ibid., 104.

35 Bret Rothstein, "Vision and Devotion in Jan van Eyck's Virgin and Child with Canon Joris van der Paele," Word & Image 15 (July-September 1999), 262.

36 Ibid., 265-267.

37 Ibid., 271.

38 Purtle, The Marian Paintings of Jan van Eyck, 106.

39 Ibid., 108.

40 Ibid., 109.

41 Ibid., 110.

42 Snyder, Northern Renaissance Art, 127.

43 Ibid., 154.

44 Julia I. Miller, “Miraculous Childbirth and the Portinari Altarpiece,” Art Bulletin 77 (June 1995), 261.

45 Ibid., 253.

46 Ibid., 259.

47 Dirk de Vos, The Flemish Primitives: the masterpieces, trans. Alison Mouthaan (Antwerp: Mercatorfonds, 2002), 151.

48 Ainsworth, Gerard David, 2.

49 Ibid., 77.

50 Ainsworth, Gerard David, 76.

51 Ainsworth, Gerard David, 245-246.

52 Ibid., 306.

53 Ibid., 306.

54 Ibid., 286- 287.