Margaret Laird on Rogier van der Weyden’s depiction
of the Virgin and Child through the eyes of St Luke
The day trippers, the beer drinkers, the chocolate and endless souvenir shops do not dampen my enthusiasm for the beautiful city of Bruges, with its impressive architecture and wonderful works of art. Whenever I return to Bruges, although there is so much to see, there are three Madonnas which I feel compelled to revisit on each occasion.
The first is the Michelangelo statue of the Virgin and Child in the church of St Mary – an unusual sight in a Northern European city but all the more impressive because of its rarity – a Renaissance statue in a truly medieval setting. Sadly, on my most recent visit I was unable to see it because the church was closed for repairs.
Secondly, there is the little Romanesque Madonna and Child in the Lady Chapel of the Begijnhof. It is said to be the earliest statue of the Madonna in the city, perhaps dating from the twelfth century. In contrast to the simplicity and classic beauty of the Michelangelo Madonna, which is sculpted in white marble, this little Madonna portrays the Virgin crowned as the Queen of Heaven. The statue retains some of the original red and gold covering and the facial features reflect those of a typical Flemish woman.
The third Madonna is in the Groeninge Museum and she is depicted in a painting of a nativity scene by the fifteenth-century artist Rogier van der Weyden. The title given to the painting is ‘St Luke draws the Virgin Mary.’
This picture differs from traditional nativity paintings in that the Virgin’s hair is not covered but hangs loosely and naturally upon her shoulders and she is dressed in the richly coloured brocade and velvet of a merchant’s wife. She nurses the child not in a stable but in what appears to be the entrance hall of a beautifully proportioned house and she sits not on a bed of straw but enthroned under a richly embroidered canopy. With her is not St Joseph but St Luke, who kneels a few feet away, drawing her portrait.
Beyond the carved pillars of the entrance hall and the patio which surrounds it, the artist has painted a detailed landscape. A river flows outside the house and attractive brick buildings line the banks. On the horizon there are hills and fields. In fact, in this painting, the artist has given us a vivid picture of fifteenth-century life: the clothes people wore, the architecture and furniture of their houses and the street scenes outside reflect the atmosphere of a busy medieval city.
There is a tradition that St Luke, who appears in this painting, was an artist and a scholarly historian with a great desire not only to record the life of Christ but also to interpret its meaning. Here, in this picture, St Luke is obviously depicted as a skilful artist, for he is executing a portrait of Mary which truly reflects the appearance of the woman who sits in front of him. He was also, according to St Paul, ‘a physician’ or doctor and the artist has given him a remarkably compassionate facial expression. He really does look as if he is a man who would have a deep concern for the sick and the suffering.
Quite apart from all these interesting artistic details, the painting is full of theological significance. Here in this elegant house in the arms of the Virgin is no ordinary child but God made man.
His birth is set not in the town of Bethlehem but in a Gentile city, which reflects the lifestyle of a much later age. The artist is doubtless attempting to explain what St Luke proclaimed in his Gospel, that Christ came to save rich and poor, Jew and Gentile of every generation – past, present and future. The Gospel which St Luke was writing also appears in the painting on a desk behind the Saint.
A busy world
Outside the house, beyond the pillars, the busy world continues its ceaseless activity. Birds perch on the turret of a bridge, people walk up and down the streets, women collect water from the river and two figures stand outside the house with their backs turned on the portrait painter. They show no interest in the child and his mother.
Leaning over the wall of the bridge, the couple look down on the river and the man points at two ships on the horizon, wondering what treasures they are bringing from foreign parts. Everyone in the city, except St Luke, seems unaware of what has happened in their midst, a birth which would change the world.
Had the couple looked up instead of down, they would have seen a vision of angels in the distant sky but, wrapped up in their own concerns, they place their hopes in material things. Only St Luke is aware and anxious to record that within the house, the most important even in history has taken place.
The details in the painting certainly do not follow closely the biblical accounts of Christ’s birth. For the artist, it is the meaning of the event which is all important – in the words of the late Cardinal Hume, ‘the great and awesome God became man.’ Van der Weyden is not content with the theological truths he has already expressed through the scene inside the house; he also demonstrates through the detail in the landscape the implications of God becoming man. Living the life of an ordinary man, Christ would have to endure and accept rejection and suffering. People, even his own people like the couple in the painting, would turn their backs on him, but van der Weyden demonstrates through his painting that rejection and suffering was part of God’s plan for the redemption of the world. So many medieval artists portrayed this fact symbolically in their nativity scenes. For example, in Ghirlandaio’s ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds,’ the manger assumes the form of a stone coffin-like tomb and in Fabiano’s ‘The Adoration of the Magi,’ the loose swaddling clothes on which the Christ-child lies resembles a shroud ready to receive the dead body.
A suffering Saviour
It is interesting to note that in St Luke’s Gospel alone do we find the account of the Presentation of the Christ in the Temple – the occasion
which we celebrate as Candlemass. The words of the ancient Simeon spell out the future role of the Christ-child as he held him in his arms. Not only did he declare him to be ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’ and ‘the glory of his people Israel’ but also as a sign to be spoken against, thus predicting that rejection would be an essential aspect of the Christ-child’s future life. Furthermore, Simeon also foresees that Mary too would share in her Son’s rejection for ‘a sword would pierce through her soul also,’ as indeed it did especially as she stood watching at the foot of the Cross.
Candlemass, therefore, must surely be observed as a vital part of our Christmass celebrations for it enables us to understand more fully the mystery of the Incarnation, and to see it in the light of the rejection, death and resurrection of Christ.
Thus, through this painting ‘St Luke draws the Virgin Mary’ van der Weyden sees the Christ-child through the eyes of St Luke, who with great compassion for all sorts and conditions of men, wrote his Gospel to show that the Child to whom Mary gave birth was indeed the Saviour, but a suffering Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, ‘whose kingdom shall have no end. ND