A woman dressed in the white habit of an Augustinian canoness kneels in front of the Virgin Mary and Christ. Mary is seated on a low, L-shaped brick wall topped with turf, with Christ perched on her knee. He holds a string of red beads with a gold tassel on one end and a yellow ring – perhaps a teething ring – at the other.
Scattered buildings sit beside two stretches of water in the background; the one on the right is a watermill. People are boating, while others walk and ride along the roads on either side of the water. In the far distance on the right we can see the spire of a church.
We don‘t know who the artist or the patron was. Augustinian canonesses, or ’White Ladies', had many houses in Brabant and Flanders. Nothing is known of this panel’s history before its presence in the London collection of the MP and silk merchant Wynn Ellis (1790–1875).
A woman dressed in the white habit of an Augustinian canoness kneels in front of the Virgin Mary and Christ. Mary is seated on a low, L-shaped brick wall topped with turf, with Christ perched on her knee. He holds a string of red beads with a gold tassel on one end and a yellow ring – perhaps a teething ring – at the other. We do not know who the patroness is: Augustinian canonesses, or ‘White Ladies’, had many houses in Brabant and Flanders.
In the background, scattered buildings sit beside two stretches of water; the one on the right is a watermill, with the wheel on our left (look closely and you can see the white splashes of the water turning it). In front of the mill a shepherd and his dog watch over a flock of sheep. People boat on the water, while others walk and ride along the roads on either side of it. In the far distance on the right is the spire of a church.
The artist was clearly impressed by the work of both Gerard David and Joachim Patinir: the figures of the Virgin and Child are like those in David’s Adoration of the Kings, painted probably in Antwerp in about 1515; the landscape is comparable to Patinir’s Flight into Egypt (Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp), also probably painted in Antwerp in about 1515–20.
The artist might not have known Patinir and David’s work directly, but through the painting of Joos van Cleve, who was strongly influenced by both. His style is close to that of Joos‘ versions of David’s figures and Patinir’s landscapes: the Virgin’s transparent veil is arranged the way that David did it, but this was constantly imitated by Joos; the countryside, the farmhouses, the pond, the flock of sheep and the flat-topped mountain can all be compared with Joos’ landscapes.
The artist had many idiosyncrasies, some of which he shared with Joos. Like Joos, he had problems with the relative sizes of things: the plants and grasses in the foreground are too large, while the Virgin’s hands are too small; also like Joos, he separated the little finger from the ring finger in a rather unnatural way. He painted better than he drew, sometimes working with great speed and freedom. The sheep are strokes of white, mixed with a little azurite; scattered dots of pure azurite suggest their heads and legs.
It is difficult to suggest a date for the painting, but as the artist might have known Joos' work of the 1520s it may have been painted in around or after 1530; the lady’s wide sleeves might be a minor concession to recent fashion.
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