Comfortably swaddled in the arms of his mother, the baby smiles. She tenderly looks back at him, seated on the steps of a wooden throne surmounted by a damask baldachin, and gives him her breast, from which a drop of milk has just escaped. Her magnificent draped clothes fall heavily on the floor, whose tiles lead to a small open passage flanked by twisted columns. Outside, everything appears peaceful. Flowers, ferns and grasses are arranged in amazingly detailed variety. Two white greyhounds face each other in the blooming vegetation, while a peacock scans the horizon, majestically installed on the crenellation of the surrounding wall. In the distance, a river flows gently towards a faraway town.
The scene depicts the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the Infant Jesus. It belongs to the iconography of the Madonna Lactans, or Nursing Madonna, an intimate 12th century representation of the Madonna and Child, in which Mary is shown nursing Christ.
This painting, attributed to the Master of the Embroidered Foliage since 1926, is an exceptional example of refined technique. Its composition is based on the comparable figures of Rogier van der Weyden’s “Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin” (completed between 1435-1440, now at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts). The stylistic bond between the Master and Rogier van der Weyden is so evident, that the present work was considered to have been completed by Rogier van der Weyden whilst in the collections of Sir Francis Beaufort Palmer and Calouste Gulbenkian in the 1920s.
Although this work only mimics the left side of van der Weyden’s prototype, it is filled with the same spiritual stillness characterizing the original painting of “Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin.” As the patron saint of artists, Saint Luke was considered one of the noblest subjects, and depictions of him adorned the premises of the painters’ guild in various cities in Europe.
The name “Master of the Embroidered Foliage” was coined in 1926 by German art historian Max Jakob Friedländer, who likened the artist’s renderings of foliage to the repeated pattern of stitches in embroidery. In addition to working as a critic and an expert, Friedländer served as the director of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin from 1896 to 1933.
Throughout his studies dedicated to the early Netherlandish painters of the late 15th century, Friedländer uncovered the existence of several small masters, each of whom he gave conventional names. According to Friedländer, the Master of the Embroidered Foliage was active in Brussels in the late 15th century and produced (alone or with the help of a dedicated studio) a dozen paintings, which all depicted the Virgin Mary and Christ Child in similar poses. In each version, the Master of Embroidered Foliage used varied backgrounds and made minor alterations to some details of the landscape. These variations were likely intended to satisfy the wishes of individual buyers, suggesting a lucrative market.
Almost all of the paintings attributed to the Master of the Embroidered Foliage were intended to glorify the Virgin and inspire devotion. In this particularly idealized vision of a world without sin, the artist inserted many details to symbolize the ultimate virtue of the Virgin. The throne, decorated with sculptural figures of Adam and Eve, hints at her future status as the Queen of Heaven, though as a sign of humility, she is seated on the step. In the background, the loggia gives access to an enclosed garden, or hortus conclusus—a typical representation of a heavenly paradise resembling the earthly world, and symbolizing the Virgin’s chastity. The two white greyhounds in the grass, typically considered the Prince’s dogs, refer to Christ and Mary’s purity. The peacock in the garden is a common Christian symbol of immortality and of Christ’s resurrection; legend has it that the flesh of a peacock never decayed.
Recently, the painting has been examined under infrared and ultraviolet light. Comparative study of the infrared images and the painted image indicates that much of the composition was established in detail prior to painting, while some changes were made during the painting process.
The most significant change is the brick wall in the right background. Originally, it was positioned further in the distance, and two figures stood facing the landscape, where the peacock is now perched. Both were underdrawn but not rendered in paint. Such figures, generally accepted as Saint Anne and Saint Joachim, the parents of the Virgin, take their inspiration from van der Weyden’s famous earlier work. The two figures also appear in “The Virgin and Child Enthroned,” another painting attributed to the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, and now at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Art Historians use two specific criteria to link a work of art to the workshop of the Master of the Embroidered Foliage: the way the artist captured the foliage via small and systematic points of light, and the use of a motif derived from several compositions of Madonna and Child by Rogier van der Weyden.
When naming the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, Friedländer paid close attention to the way the artist captured the foliage in his paintings. He compared the properly and meticulously spaced points of light to the repeated pattern of stitches in embroidery of the time period. The special attention given to the landscape in the works by the Master of the Embroidered Foliage shows a modern direction in art history at the time. Before Friedländer, landscapists were all situated in a Ganto-Bruges context. By comparing the Master’s work to the art of the tapestry, Friedländer became the first to link its production to the region of Brussels, a city where painters had the sole privilege of producing tapestry cartoons.
Friedländer confirmed this geographical assumption by proving the repetition of various models of a Virgin and Child after Rogier van der Weyden, the official painter of the city of Brussels. Today, art historians believe that the Master mainly worked after four models of “Virgin and Child” by Rogier van der Wyden. They are: the Nursing Madonna from “Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin,” a lost Madonna which inspired the “Triptych of Salve Regina” of Tournai, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tournai; a seated “Madonna and Child,” only known through a drawing now at the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum of Rotterdam; and the “Madonna Duran,” in the Prado Museum.