MASTER of the Legend of Saint Lucy
(active c. 1480-1510 in Bruges)

Virgin Surrounded by Female Saints

c. 1488
Oak, 108 x 171 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

An anonymous painter working in the last two decades of the 15th century at Bruges, the Master of the Legend of St Lucy takes his name from a painting representing three episodes from the legend of this saint (Bruges, Sint-Jakobskerk). He paints willowy women with oval faces, and with slightly slit eyes under long, puffed eyelids, whose somewhat affected manner calls to mind the art of his contemporary Memling.

According to archive sources, the Virgin Surrounded by Female Saints was placed in 1489 in the church of the Our Lady in Bruges on the altar belonging to the rhetoric chamber named De drie Sanctinnen (the three female saints), and was therefore likely painted shortly before that date. The three saints in question are Catherine, Mary Magdalen and Barbara, all widely venerated in Bruges. They surround a Virgin and Child, forming the central group of the composition.

The Virgin is represented as the Queen of Heaven. She wears a crown and is seated on a throne behind which two angels hold aloft a rich brocade honour cloth. The scene takes place in an enclosed garden, full of plants and flowers, evoking Paradise. A landscape extends far into the background. The eleven young women surrounding the Virgin can be identified by their various attributes accompanying them or decorating their rich garments. The Child is holding a ring to Catherine in order to seal their "mystical marriage". This saint is also accompanied by a sword and her mantle is decorated with wheels. Mary Magdalene can be recognised by her ointment pot and Barbara by the towers that decorate her brocade mantle and her necklace. To the left, Ursula is identified by the arrows of her martyrdom half hidden beneath her gown, Apollina by a tooth in a pair of pincers and Lucy by a tray with two eyes on it. An unidentified saint holds a crown and a bell. To the right, Agnes carries a lamb in her lap and presents a ring, signifying her mystical marriage with Christ. Cunera, a companion of Ursula, carries a little cradle or footstool, along with an arrow, and Agatha a pair of pincers holding a torn-off breast. Margaret holds a cross in her hand. She is also accompanied in the landscape by a representation of St George slaying the dragon, a scene with which she is frequently associated.