This puzzling picture of the Virgin and Child is often called the ‘Firescreen Madonna’, after the large wicker firescreen behind the Virgin’s head. We do not know who it was made for, or where or how it was used. We are not even sure how it originally looked: it was extensively restored in the nineteenth century.
Although they are biblical figures, the artist has placed the Virgin and Christ inside a wealthy, even palatial, Netherlandish home. The Virgin is dressed as a queen. She wears a blue overdress over a linen shift, open at the neck to show her blue-veined breasts. Wisely, she has spread a white cloth over her knees to protect her clothes from the naked, wriggling child. A tiny hook at its corner would have allowed it to be hung up to dry.
Christ’s genitals are clearly visible under the Virgin’s left hand. They were perhaps meant to remind viewers that Christ was fully human, and shared humanity’s vulnerability.
This puzzling picture of the Virgin and Child is often called the ‘Firescreen Madonna’, after the large wicker firescreen behind the Virgin’s head. It is a complex painting in many ways. We do not know who it was made for, or where or how it was used.
We are not even sure how it originally looked: the painting was extensively restored in the nineteenth century. A narrow strip was added along the top, confusing the structure of the chimney piece. The panel was cut on the right, perhaps because it had been damaged by fire and a broader strip – including the Virgin’s left elbow, the carved cupboard and the chalice – was added. We don‘t know whether these details were copied from the original or invented by the restorer.
Although they are biblical figures, the artist has placed the Virgin and Christ inside a wealthy, even palatial, Netherlandish home. A fire is blazing in the large stone fireplace, its flames just visible over the top of the firescreen. Firelight flickers on the tall iron firedogs, and on the three-legged wooden stool in front of the window. The floor is laid with coloured tiles; cushions and costly textiles are flung on the carved wooden bench. A beautifully bound bible, with blue and red initials, lies open beside Mary, its parchment pages fluttering in the draft from the open window. Its jewelled clasps, gilt fore-edges, red tasselled page-markers and white chemise – a cover, like a dust-jacket, which protected especially precious manuscripts – are minutely depicted, down to the tie holding the chemise around the book.
The Virgin is clearly the Queen of Heaven in her palace. She wears a blue overdress (which was once more purple) over a linen shift, open at the neck to show her blue-veined breasts. The overdress is lined with grey fur and trimmed with precious stones, her long loose hair is a symbol of both virginity and regality. Wisely, she has spread a white cloth over her knees to protect her clothes from the naked, wriggling child. A tiny hook at its corner would have allowed it to be hung up to dry.
Through the window we can see a walled Netherlandish town with a tall church tower and gabled buildings. Its tiny details are tricky to see, but horsemen ride through the streets, a woman stands in a doorway watching two men with a ladder fighting a fire next door, and a customer chats to a woman at a shop window. In the distance, a white farmhouse nestles in wooded hills, and mountains fade into the blue distance.
There are various oddities in the composition: the Virgin seems to hover between bench and floor, and although she holds her right breast she would feed Christ more easily with her left. Her left hand doesn’t properly support her child, who waves one hand aimlessly in the air: he has lost the beads which would have given his gesture meaning. The artist, who perhaps also painted the Merode Triptych (The Met Cloisters, New York), seems to have assembled elements from different paintings by Campin and Rogier van der Weyden.
Technical analysis reveals many changes. Christ originally looked towards the window, not the viewer, and the position of his feet was altered. There were also alterations in the Virgin’s face, sleeves and left hand, which appears to have been moved downwards to reveal Christ’s genitals (these were hidden by a restorer but came to light when the painting was cleaned in 1992–3). It was clearly important that his genitals could be seen – they were perhaps meant to remind viewers that Christ was fully human, and shared humanity’s vulnerability.
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