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

Mary, Queen of Heaven

c. 1485-1500
Oil on panel, 199 x 162 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy is named after an altarpiece, dated 1480 and in a church in Bruges, that depicts episodes from the life of Saint Lucy. The Flemish city of Bruges often appears as the setting for the master's paintings. His style is characterized by extraordinarily brilliant colors, intricately detailed textures and patterns, compressed space, and figures with oval faces that are restrained in expression. Several of his paintings have been found in Castile, suggesting that the Netherlandish artist may have spent part of his career in Spain.

This unusually large painting depicts a mystic glorification of the Virgin. Hovering angels, garbed in silks and brocades of every conceivable hue, attend a central image of Mary and surround a smaller, upper vision of her heavenly throne. On either side of the Virgin's head, singing angels hold musical scores that can be read as the Ave Regina Celorum, a hymn beginning with the words "Hail, Queen of the Heavens." This splendid picture comes from the convent of Santa Clara near Burgos in north central Spain. Records suggest that the work was commissioned by an aristocratic constable of Castile whose daughter was abbess of the convent.

With a fusion of subjects, Mary, Queen of Heaven combines three sacred events from the legend of the Virgin. The Immaculate Conception, representing Mary's freedom from Original Sin, traditionally shows "a woman arrayed with the sun, and a moon under her feet" (Revelation 12:1). In the picture, sunbeams rendered in gold leaf blaze behind Mary's head and feet, and a crescent moon supports her.

Three days after Mary's death, seraphim bore her to heaven. In this Assumption of the Virgin theme, an open sarcophagus is usually displayed but is absent here. In place of the coffin is a serene and peaceful landscape that may refer to a commonly held idea that, at the Assumption, the world was cleansed by the Virgin's purity.

The third subject is the Coronation of the Virgin. Above her head, the clouds roll back to reveal heaven, with God the Father and Christ the Son holding a crown, above which hovers the dove of the Holy Spirit. Mary's coronation is only implied here, since she has not yet risen to join the Trinity. With its overlapping symbolism, spectacular flurry of ecclesiastical robes, and flutter of iridescent wings, Mary, Queen of Heaven is the Master of the Saint Lucy Legend's most sumptuous and ambitious achievement.

Renaissance Music

In addition to its radiant beauty and complicated theology, Mary, Queen of Heaven is an exceptionally important document for the history of music. The painting portrays Renaissance instruments with great accuracy, as they would have been played during fifteenth-century performances. In actual church services, however, this many orchestras and choirs would seldom have been used simultaneously. Eight instrumentalists surround the Virgin, for instance, while only four singers immediately flank her head. Since many of these instruments, such as the trumpet and woodwinds, would have been considered "loud," they would have overwhelmed the chorus.

On the left side, starting in the top corner, an angel in white blows a tenor or alto shawm, a precursor of the English horn. Beside him, an angel in wine red robes strums a Gothic harp. A brass trumpet is held by the figure in lilac blue, partially hidden behind the angel caressing Mary's shoulder. Dressed in pure yellow, another celestial musician pumps the bellows of a portative organ.

In the top corner of the right side, an angel bows a vielle, an early form of violin. Next to him is a figure playing a soprano or treble shawm, a distant forerunner of the oboe. Halfway down the right side, an angel in cherry red plucks a lute, while, behind him, another shawm or woodwind is partly concealed behind olive green wings.

The vocal quartet serenading Mary holds music with legible scores. The sheet to the left, which gives the painting its title, appears to be a variation on a motet, Hail, Queen of the Heavens, by Walter Frye (died 1474/1475), an English composer whose works were popular on the Continent. The sheet music to the right bears the word Tenor, which would be the voice that carries the melody.

Among the clouds in the topmost portion, the musicians do correspond to actual usage. The orchestra at the right comprises "soft" instruments: three recorders, a lute, a dulcimer being struck by light hammers, and a harp. Two choruses are on the left of the Trinity. Both groups have one book of music each, suggesting that their singing is antiphonal and polyphonic. The upper choir, composed of winged angels in white robes, may represent a children's chorus. Overall, this encyclopedic combination of vocalists and "loud" and "soft" instrumentalists is unique in fifteenth-century painting.