WEYDEN, Rogier van der
(b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles)

Mary Altarpiece (Miraflores Altarpiece)

c. 1440
Oil on oak panel, 71 x 43 cm (each)
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

The work consists of three separate panels of the same size arranged side by side, rigid and not in folding form. The original frame must have been constructed in a similar way to the present one, although probably not gold but the colour of the painted architectural arches, so that the real frame seemed like a continuation of the painted architectural framework, thus heightening the illusion, and creating (especially in the upper sections of the altarpiece) a perfect link between the painted archivolts and tracery spandrels and the real frame between them. Such combinations of real and painted framework structures, designed to increase the illusion, had already occurred in several works by Jan van Eyck.

In the Miraflores Altarpiece the painted architectural frames represent portals, and with their sculptural construction and tripartite form they are reminiscent of the portals of Gothic church architecture. Convincingly designed as they are in detail, they are not a realistic reproduction of any actual place, but are settings for scenes representing important elements in the relationship between the Virgin Mary and Christ rather than historical events.

On the left, the Virgin Mary is praying to the son on her lap; the central panel is a Pietà in which, Christ's body on her lap, she mourns His death and suffering; to the right, the risen Christ appears to her in order to end her grief. The reliefs in the archivolts, showing other events from the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ, accompany and comment on these scenes. They provide much more extensive narrative than the main scenes, showing their context in chronological order, running counter-clockwise and beginning at the apex of each archivolt.

Colour contributes a great deal to the complex programmatic content of the altarpiece. In contemporary painting of the time, and therefore in the work of Rogier, the colours of garments often convey meaning, but seldom so cogently as in the Miraflores Altarpiece. The colour of Mary's clothing, which differs from one panel to the next, is not only aesthetically effective and diversified, but also makes a fundamental symbolic statement: white is for the purity of the Virgin, red for her pain, blue for her faith - virtues for which the angels hovering above, as the text on their scrolls indicate, are bringing her crowns.

The figures in the Miraflores Altarpiece are slightly more delicate and less powerful than those of the Deposition (Prado, Madrid), an impression reinforced even by comparison of the spandrels in the tracery. This difference may be to do with the much smaller size of the Mary altarpiece, but it corresponds to a general tendency in Rogier's development. Its change in figure style is accompanied by a change in the depiction of faces, which have become slightly more abstract and less lifelike. It seems probable, then, that the Miraflores Altarpiece was painted later than the Deposition. Art historians long assumed that it had been painted before the Werl Altarpiece by the Master of Flémalle, dated 1438, because the gesture of the right hand of John the Baptist in the left-hand wing of that work (Prado, Madrid) was assumed to derive from the depiction of the risen Christ in the Miraflores altarpiece. However, the underdrawing clearly shows that the position of the hands was much altered in both figures during work on the paintings. Consequently, the artists must have been drawing on a common stock of workshop models to come up with their eventual solutions, and no chronological conclusions can be drawn. It seems most probable that King Juan commissioned the Mary altarpiece especially for his foundation of Miraflores, which would suggest that it was painted in the early 1440s.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.