(active 1480s)

St Luke Painting the Virgin

Woodcut, 89 x 161 mm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea) is a collection of stories outlining the lives of the saints. written in Latin by Jacobus de Voragine toward the end of the thirteenth century, it remained a popular work for many centuries. Depending on the whims of the publishers, some editions were made up of 177 chapters, while others went as high as 182. Essentially this was a devotional book; its purpose, like the more modest single woodcut prints, was to encourage dedication to the moral standards of the holy and saintly. This work went through countless editions and was translated into many languages. Caxton issued it in English, Chaucer borrowed subject matter from its pages; centuries later, Longfellow adopted the title for his Golden Legend and modeled his style somewhat on that of the original.

The illustration shown here is from an edition published by the same Anton Koberger who gave us the popular Nuremberg Chronicle. The subject is St Luke, shown in his studio in the act of painting a picture of the Virgin. An apprentice at the right is busily grinding colour. To the left, in another room; we see the ox, the symbol of the Evangelist. A picture, or possibly a vision, of the Madonna appears on the wall. St Luke was a physician, an author, and, according to sixth-century tradition, a painter of several representations of the Virgin.

This charming scene reminds us of some of the illustrations for the Cologne Bible; but in its more subtle feeling for design and its knowledge of perspective and anatomy, it is certainly the work of a competent designer. Like other books of the period, it was offered in black-and-white, and, probably for a somewhat higher price, enlivened and enhanced by the addition of colour.