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