MASTER of Flémalle
(b. ca. 1375, Valenciennes, d. 1444, Tournai)

Virgin and Child in an Interior

c. 1435
Oil on oak, 23 x 15 cm
National Gallery, London

Like the Virgin and Child before a Firescreen (in the same museum), the picture shows the Virgin Mary in a cosy domestic setting. She has either just bathed, or is about to bathe, the Christ Child in front of the fire. The scene corresponds to no passage in the Gospels, but is inspired by the devotional literature which was widely current in the Netherlands at the time. We are invited to marvel at the humility of Mary, a modest - if surprisingly well-to-do - townswoman; at her maternal devotion - she does not rely on a nursemaid to care for her child; and at the tender affection between her and her son. More profoundly, we are led to reflect on the Incarnation: Christ has truly become man, touching his genitals like like any baby boy. His mother is without doubt the Virgin, for she wears her hair loose like an unmarried girl or a queen at her coronation. Haloes radiate from both their heads. The lighted candle may symbolise the marriage candle, for she is not only the Mother, but also the Bride of Christ.

Through the refined manipulation of thin layers of translucent oil paint, the artist is able to depict three light sources - the window, the sparking fire and the steadily burning candle - and the surface textures of many different materials, from the gleaming metal of the water basin to the velvet brocade of cushions and bench covering. Almost more magically, he is able to evoke the distant sky through the open window and through the small leaded glass panes above. These wonderful details were surely meant to capture and hold the close attention of the viewer, and lead him or her (and perhaps more particularly her) effortlessly to meditate on the spiritual values embodied here.

The painting was probably executed by the workshop of the Master of Flémalle (Robert Campin). The original frame and support are carved from a single piece of wood.