WEYDEN, Rogier van der
(b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles)
St Luke Drawing the Portrait of the Madonna-
Oil on oak panel, 133 x 107 cm
Groeninge Museum, Bruges
The figures are seen in a vaulted portico opening onto an inner garden. The space is situated in a fortress raised above earthly life, the city below and the river landscape. Seated on the step of a wooden throne, over which a canopy is hung, the Virgin is suckling the Child. St Luke sits in front of her. With one knee resting on a cushion, he is drawing her portrait with a silver point on a sheet of paper or parchment supported by a small plank. The Virgin's head and features have already been worked out. The drawing is intended as a preparatory sketch, which causes the theme to be interpreted as taking place in real time, as well as emphasizing the artist's ability to record the divine, and thus, as it were, to prove its existence. The activity depicted in the painting probably reflects accurately the way in which, in the fifteenth century, a painted portrait was prepared by means of a preliminary drawing (the best-known example is Van Eyck's drawing with the portrait of Cardinal Albergati in Dresden). In the adjacent room behind St Luke lies an open book, probably an allusion to his gospel, and the ox, his emblem. It remains unclear why the scroll is not inscribed with his name.
The low position of the Virgin, seated in front of her throne, corresponds to the type of the Virgin of Humility, a motif derived from St Luke's Gospel. On the arm of the throne the Fall of Man is depicted, which is connected with the role of Jesus and Mary as the new Adam and Eve. The two small figures looking over the crenellated wall are sometimes linked with Joachim and Anna, Mary's parents. In the background on the left is a wooden corner-house with a signboard consisting of a stick on which copper dishes are hanging. More of these can also be seen in the display-window. This same house often appears in the work of Rogier van der Weyden and the Master of Flémalle and it has been erroneously taken for a shop of painters' materials. In fact it concerns a surgeon's house. The pans were used during blood-letting. In the context of this painting the connection with the figure of St Luke, who was also a doctor, is not imaginary. His clothing too, with the exception of the evangelist's inkpot hanging from his belt, is in fact that of a doctor.
St Luke as the portrait painter of the Virgin was originally probably intended to be symbolical, because his gospel deals with the Virgin Mary in the greatest detail. In his capacity as an artist, he came to be the patron saint of the painters' guilds from the fourteenth century onwards. The composition is the oldest preserved example of a St Luke painting the portrait of an actually present Mother of God.
There exist three other examples of this composition, identical apart from a few details, of which the one in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, since its restoration in 1932-33, is regarded by most art historians as the original (other examples in Munich, Alte Pinakothek, and St Petersburg, Hermitage). The attribution to Rogier van der Weyden was made on stylistic grounds and has never been contested. The date, on account of the still strong link with the Master of Flémalle (emphasis on materiality and volume, rounded, broad, rolling drapery) and the resemblance to Jan van Eyck's Virgin of Chancellor Rolin (Paris, Musée du Louvre), has been situated in his early period (1435-36). To judge by the technique the examples of Bruges, Munich and St Petersburg were only made towards the end of the fifteenth or even in the beginning of the sixteenth century. Although they are very faithful copies, they appear on comparison each to have a style of its own with occasionally a remarkable kinship with well-known Brussels painters such as the Magdalene Master (St Petersburg) and of the Master of the Embroidered Foliage (Munich). The Bruges version is more difficult to situate. It seems to be of higher quality than the copies of Munich and St Petersburg, and is certainly the best preserved.
The composition was enormously popular in the second half of the fifteenth century, when the abundant production of half-length Virgins started to undergo its morphological influence. It gave rise to a host of pastiche-like borrowings of loose elements. Hans Memling was inspired by the architectural setting and the background of Rogier's painting when creating his Virgin Enthroned of Kansas City.