A thousand words

St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child

A picture is worth a thousand words, so it’s said. On that basis, I shall expend no more than a thousand words on a late 15th-century painting I recently saw on loan from the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

What I intend to do is draw out the narrative explicit and implicit in this late medieval Flemish image, and go a little beyond the core details contained in the adjoining gallery label.

Here we see St Luke kneeling at the feet of the Madonna and Child, in a pose echoing the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation: Luke wields a pencil instead of Gabriel’s proffered lily, and studies his models intently where the archangel might gaze benignly.

Both Mary and Luke wear an outer garment of a pinkish hue, Mary’s of course being richer than Luke’s. The pinks contrast with the greens in the painting, seen in the bright cushions and bench covering behind Luke, the fringe above Mary’s head, the verdure in the landscape through the window and on the tiles in the foreground. Mary’s robe overlaps only the green on the tiles while Luke’s obviously just touches the pink.

Pink is also evident in the flesh-coloured fruit Mary offers the infant (who appears to be rearing back, recoiling). Hard to tell what it is, possibly a peach or apple, or, at a pinch, a fig, least likely a pomegranate, I would think.

Behind the faintly-smiling Mary the gold of the stylised vegetation in the brocade cloth is picked up by the red tints of her hair and by the trim on her collar, and brought to life further by the intense blue and reddish pink of her garments.

The shape of the gold patterning deliberately references the upper parts of the trees in the distant landscape seen through the arcade columns. It’s notable that none of the hallowed personages we see in front of us sport haloes (apparently Mary may originally have had one planned) but the three rounded arches may now stand in lieu of this convention of indicating saintliness.

Strong verticals and horizontals create a sense of stability, and it’s possible to imagine this image as a diptych, sacred to the left, mundane to the right. The diagonals are more subtly indicated, however, by the folds in the robes, the tiling, the angle of Luke’s sketch tablet and the general use of perspective.

As the observer’s eye travels from bottom left to top right (a common trajectory in Western art) we note colours becoming less vivid and grey tones being introduced, perhaps symbolic of that contrast between the heavenly and the mundane. Luke’s cap has a purplish shade which transitions to the grey of the walls and the panelled corridor or room beyond.

In this new space sits an unfinished canvas on the artist’s easel, a portrait of a woman in a head covering and wearing a robe of a reddish orange, probably the start of Mary’s portrait for which Luke is trying to finalise details.

Beside the easel lie a palette, brushes and prepared paint in mussel shells, no doubt a familiar sight in the workshops of Flemish Renaissance artists. The red pigment is likely to be derived from cinnabar or mercury sulphide, a toxic mineral, which possibly also provided the reddish-pink tincture of the Virgin’s outer garment.

This marvellous painting is from the workshop of Dieric Bouts the Elder in Leuven, now situated in Belgium. In depicting the popular legend of Luke the Evangelist being the earliest icon painter the studio would have been unconcerned with historical proof of the conceit that he portrayed the Virgin — none exists, of course — being focused instead on celebrating the evangelist’s stature as the patron saint of artists.

Luke is making preparatory studies of Mary and the Christ child. Maybe his brow is puckered because he’s aware of the seriousness of his undertaking; if the task is made harder by the wriggling infant it’s clear from a closer inspection that he’s concentrating for now only on the mother.

What more can we say about this painting? Lots, probably, but I shall conclude with discussing the sense of space conveyed here. Imagine you’re in one of these house programmes that daytime TV delights in broadcasting. The presenter, or maybe estate agent, is showing us around this Flemish domicile.

“Lots of living space here, you’ll notice: a little alcove for privacy on your left, for example. This room, now, has a lovely tiled floor, an original feature, I’m told. And then, a real wow factor, just look at this view of Leuven from the window! Isn’t that something? Even a window seat: the owners say they’re willing to include fixtures and fittings in the price. And then a corridor, almost wide enough for a studio. Notice the windows overlooking the central court, perfect for al fresco dining. This eventually leads to the east wing…”

In addition we, the viewers, are observing from outside in our own space, sharing the experience but not participants in the action, such as it is.

And now I think I must be nearing my thousand-word limit.

If you like this kind of exploration — images as narratives — then you might like to know I’m planning to do a few more, with a more factual approach on this here blog and a more imaginative flash fiction vibe over on Zenrinji

21 thoughts on “A thousand words

  1. Do I like these explorations? I love them. This is a true picture study, Chris. This is what I tried, (and failed, ha ha ha), to do with my daughters. But they were young, there’s hope. If nothing else, I’m a convert to this kind of look at art. This painting will now stay in my mind. It’s quite impressive and pleasing to look at. Lucky you who saw it in person.

    I have an art book that tells of the symbolism of fruit, plants, and animals in art. I’m going to look at what an apple symbolizes. Maybe even the trees in the landscape.

    And is it me, or does that baby’s face not look like a baby? Even his body is a bit too long and he looks like a baby with the features of the time, -protruding belly, very long hands, feet and arms. He’s cute in a different way, but still cute, ha ha ha.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oops, this disappeared into spam, Silvia, from where I retrieved it — weird that your next one got through without mishap! I’ll go answer your second comment now. 🙂


  2. piotrek

    I’m always impressed by the amount of details one can decipher from such paintings, I need someone to spell most of it out for me.

    I’ve always been more of a reader and when it comes to visual arts I require help, so – thanks 🙂 I definitely want to see more posts like this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’ll definitely be more like these, Piotrek, mostly though not only representational art, so I’m glad you found it helpful!

      I love that human aptitudes are so diverse, though a little jealous of those who are polymaths — because of course, that isn’t fair according to my personal ‘just world’ hypothesis! So I may be predisposed to ‘read’ paintings, or it may just be my training in classical music allows me to analyse such art with parallel skills in terms of structure, rhythm, tone colour, theme and so on. Ditto with fiction.

      On the other hand I’m less confident in other spheres, especially kinetic ones such as dance or team games, and in terms of mechanics, say, or chemistry I’m a complete and utter klutz.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m always intrigued by the subtle use of dimensions in the paintings – Mary is much bigger than Luke, indicating her status, and the eye naturally (for Western culture) follows from left to right – from what is most important/in the forefront, to the ‘behind the scenes’ of Luke’s mostly hidden workshop. I really love the elements of the background – the mosaic, the rich screen and the ottoman by the classical window. And while the trees are still very medieval, the whole painting seems to have taken already a lot of early Renaissance style.

    Fascinating post, Chris!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Ola, and fascinating too what you have to say, especially your comments about Mary being bigger than Luke. True, she’s marginally taller and her face, curiously, is longer (a harking back to that medieval sensibility?) but one — I feel more like an idealised icon. Interestingly — she’s more tucked in to the left while Luke has all that space around him. Why should that be so?

      I think there’s a sense of Mary not just being enthroned, with Luke a kind of supplicant, but of her being an effigy in a niche or, if one prefers, a more otherworldly creature, perhaps an indication of the ineffability that medieval icons aimed to project.

      If I’m right, and I’m just as likely not to be, than this painting represents an uneasy transition from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance, an awkward compromise between a religious idealism and a more modern Renaissance realism. It’s certainly evident in the probably deliberate distortion of perspective in the tiling and the space off to the right, which feels almost as if it’s a painted trompe-l’oeil screen than an entry to a real room.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting! I agree that this painting shows transition between Middle Ages (Mary’s stiff pose, her highly typified face, etc.) and Renaissance (the background, attention to detail, the peek behind the curtains to a very down-to-earth workshop with all the trappings of the trade: mussels, easel, etc.) I think Mary is tucked to the left so that the workshop can fit in – as you said, this painting depicts st Luke, the patron saint of painters, so the whole structure of the painting indicates a subtle shift of focus – more on Luke and his profession, less on Mary and Jesus, who nevertheless still receive the required amount of reverence.

        I’m looking forward to your next little essays on art, Chris! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks, Ola, and it sounds as if we’re in agreement over the transitional nature of this painting! Another aspect that struck me is Luke’s pose being reminiscent of those in the Adoration of the Kings pictures. Unlike Caspar, Balthassar and Melchior, Luke is only proffering his sketch and, unlike Jesus in the Adoration paintings, the Child is seemingly refusing even the gift of some food! No stable this, either, nor anybody else, so a real subversion of that theme if that was in the artist’s mind.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Chris, I commented yesterday but I don’t see my comment… I’ll try again, 🙂
    I’m very interested in this type of posts. This is what I tried to do with my girls when we homeschooled, to do a painting study, not so much collecting the facts, -though some context is always needed-, as what you did, looking closely and savoring those details, narrating the painting, if you wish.

    I also wrote that I’m going to check my book of art symbolism, it has a lot of the plants, animals, and objects in art, and what they represent. I’ll check again on apples and maybe even the trees in the background. I know flowers and fruits with religious subjects at this time in the arts have meaning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you appreciate these musings, Silvia, and I will try to make some sense with my replies here!

      I’ll deal with the baby first. Its posture reminds me of when our own kids at that age refused food: they’d arch their backs and move their hands back in the same gesture, usually turning their heads away as well. I’m guessing it’s baulking at being offered the fruit!

      Now the fruit. The label says apple, and it may well be, but it still looks a bit narrow despite the development of modern varieties designed to all look juicy yet homogenous. If an apple it may refer back to Eve’s temptation (unsurprising then that the child is refusing it) but if not I don’t know what, nor what the most apt symbolism would be.

      I’d be also interested in what you may come up with researching trees: those have a very distinctive shaped, almost as if they’ve been trained that way.

      Thanks again for commenting, Silvia, always happy to read your thoughtful responses!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We are used to seeing bright shiny red or green apples, but there are hundreds, maybe more varieties that come in all shapes, sizes, colors and texture. It’s very possible this is an apple, just a variety we are not used to seeing in this century, because, many have gone the way of the dodo bird and only exists in pictures!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. True enough, Laurie — and I see that certain UK supermarkets are selling ‘wonky’ apples and pears now, labelled as such — but I’ve googled ‘apples in Renaissance paintings’ and pretty much all of them are rounded and juicy, unlike this fruit, which takes me back to the suggestion that it mayn’t necessarily be an apple. (Unless its ‘wonkiness’ is deliberate!)

          Here’s a link to the symbolism of fruit in paintings of this period:

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I only found this. That you are right about the similarities with The Annunciation, – which you knew, :), and on the fruit, that it may, as you said, refer to the original sin. But I read that the fact that this is baby Jesus may also signify the whole christian story, original sin and redemption, which is also something common to these divine themed paintings. Still, what makes this one so amazing is how beautiful, solemn and warm it is. I notice there’s a bit of contrast in size or presence between virgin Mary and Luke. It’s as if they are in the same space an not.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Ola’s first comment above was about Mary’s slightly larger size compared to Luke, a fact which I hadn’t previously noticed. I haven’t really gone into the theology inherent in these paintings as I often think it’s possible to get so worked up with their supposed allegorical and symbolic meanings that we can lose sight of their inherent beauty and emotional power. But that’s just my opinion, for what it’s worth!

      Liked by 1 person

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