Home Entertainment When a saint draws the Virgin, so much is in the details

When a saint draws the Virgin, so much is in the details

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I often study the expression on the face of Saint Luke in this masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Van der Weyden is believed to have painted himself in the guise of Saint Luke. His face is concentrated and dispassionate (look at the even set of his mouth). It’s patient.

Since Saint Luke is the patron saint of artists, I imagine Van der Weyden extending that patience as much to himself (it takes time to get a good likeness) as to his subjects. (Good luck trying to keep an unswaddled, feeding infant still.)

But there is also a hint — from the slight tilt of his head (the kind children make when they see an adorable puppy, but dialed right back) — of tenderness. Tenderness and devotion. His attitude puts me in mind of the philosopher Simone Weil, who said: “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.”

Well, anyway. What a painting! “Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin” exists in multiple versions, but scholars think that this one, generally dated 1435-1440, is the original. In the other versions, the artist seems to have been working from an already settled composition, whereas here there is evidence of alterations in the under-drawing. (It takes time to get it right!)

The painting’s theme was dear to artists, because of the legend that Luke the Evangelist was not only the author of much of the New Testament, but also the painter of the first images of the Virgin Mary. Luke therefore became the patron saint of painters’ guilds. To achieve master status in these guilds, artists would often paint versions of Luke depicting the Virgin.

In Van der Weyden’s version (the best by anyone), Luke is drawing with a stylus, so he’s unencumbered by painting paraphernalia. What he’s doing is very focused, very direct. Beyond the three figures in the foreground, there is an enclosed garden. Two figures look out over the far wall to a town on a river and a distant landscape.

One could fill pages just naming the things in it, both near and far. Particularly mesmerizing is Van der Weyden’s rendering of the gold brocade on the silk cloth hanging behind and above the Virgin. The artist’s skill (the gold thread reflects more light in the parts of the textile that are closer to the sun) is just flabbergasting, as it was no doubt intended to be.

Van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck, along with Robert Campin (also known as the Master of Flemalle), inaugurated a profound transformation in picture-making in the cities of the former lowlands (the Netherlands) that were controlled by Philip the Good of Burgundy. They proceeded empirically, directly observing how light and color behave in space, rather than by synthesizing observation and the rules of linear perspective that were being developed by their peers in Italy.

While the likes of Masaccio in Italy were painting frescoes, Van Eyck and Van der Weyden had mastered the lustrousness of oil paint. They used thin, transparent glazes that filtered light reflected off underlying layers, creating astonishingly lifelike illusions of texture and atmosphere. But they weren’t “realists” in the modern sense. They were more ambitious than that.

They cunningly integrated Christian symbolism into images that were spatially unified and consistent with reality. Here, for example, Adam and Eve — whose original sin the infant Jesus was born to redeem — appear not in a separate panel or a distinct part of this picture, but, more plausibly, as a carving in the throne on which the Virgin sits. Mary’s position on the step of the throne, meanwhile, suggests her humility, just as the enclosed garden symbolizes her purity.

Van der Weyden’s composition bears a striking resemblance to Van Eyck’s “The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin” in the Louvre. Van Eyck’s picture, probably painted a few years earlier, is set in a similar architectural space with a similar view out to an enclosed garden with a city, river and landscape beyond.

"The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin" (1430-1434), by Jan van Eyck.
“The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin” (1430-1434), by Jan van Eyck. (Leemage/Corbis/Getty Images)

Everything in both pictures is about connecting the divine and the everyday. In Van der Weyden’s “Saint Luke,” I love the way the infant Jesus’s feet and fingers are flexed as he smiles, as if in a euphoria of anticipation. Notice, too, the Virgin’s calm as she offers her breast. It matches Luke’s patient observation. Luke is patron saint of healers as well as artists, and the breastfeeding Mary (often referred to as Maria Lactans) also symbolizes the Mother Church, which was supposed to care for the hungry, the sick — for everyone.

So while the painting is a meditation on the art of painting (or drawing, in this case), it may also open onto something even deeper — something to do with paying attention and devotion, with healing, with giving. “Attention,” wrote Weil, “is the rarest and purist form of generosity.”

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.

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