UNKNOWN MASTER, German
(active in 1420s in the Lower Rhineland)
The Holy Family with Angelsc. 1425
Oak, 25 x 19 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
This picture introduces us to a busy moment in the Holy Family's everyday life. It is evening, the time of the evening meal, and the bathing of the Infant. Underneath a thatched building without walls on the sides, the Virgin is seated on an ornate brocade mattress. At her head an angel is arranging her pillow, whereas on her right two shepherds watch humbly but inquisitively how the family arrangements are proceeding. The Virgin - quite unusually - is not in charge of the situation: although she would like to feed Jesus, He flees to Joseph, to escape dinner. He trails a diaper behind Him and looks back at His mother to see the effect of His action. Old Joseph, who looks like Santa Claus, with a white beard and dressed in red, is sitting at his work-bench. He is holding flowers in both hands to lure Jesus to him. There is a hustle and bustle in the whole scene. The dilapidated thatching is being repaired by two angels. Three other angels are singing beside a gorgeous golden fountain in the bottom left corner, while two more angels are carrying water from there to the bath-tub, which, to quote Panofsky, "is enclosed by one of the earliest and most elegant shower-curtains in history". Beside it a woman is also busy preparing the water for the bath.
Some of the charming details which emanate a warm atmosphere have a symbolic meaning too. The motif of repairing the roof refers to the fact that the institution of the Church needs perpetual repair. The lovely golden fountain symbolizes the Fountain of Life in Paradise.
It is not easy to be certain where the picture was created. It was certainly not made in a first-rate court workshop; neither the manner of the painting nor the character of the whole scene is refined enough for this. On the other hand, it is obvious that the painter had been touched by the elegance of the International Gothic style. This is evinced, for example, by the brocade mattress of the Virgin's bed, by the shower-curtain and the graceful movement of the figure scooping water. The naturalness of the stocky, popular figures, the lavish attention to small details illustrating the story (for example, the five toes of the angel standing in the bottom left corner, Joseph's work-bench, the ladder, the nails of the hut, etc.) are reminiscent of the art of the southern part of the Netherlands. On the other hand, here and there the definitely expressive manner of painting and the mood of the representation reflect the proximity of the North German provinces. Such elements are, e.g., the bare little tree sketched with quick white strokes of the brush into the foreground of the painting, or the animated scene in the background on the left side, where against a dark green ground the steep rocks and the figures of the two shepherds are depicted only with black outlines and white lines which zigzag like strokes of lightning.
This scene shows the playful spirit of the early fifteenth century.