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The Virgin Mary in her chamber is greeted by Christ, risen from the dead. He is accompanied by the multitude who followed him out of limbo. This painting belonged to Isabella of Castile, Queen of Spain, and was listed with 46 companion panels in an inventory in 1505. The panels – 27 survive in various collections – are all the same size, and most show scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin.
The episode shown here is not found in the Bible. The painter may have followed the account of this meeting between the Virgin and the risen Christ in the Vita Christi (‘Life of Christ’), a fifteenth-century Catalan devotional text written by an abbess, Sor Isabel de Villena. Sor Isabel was related to Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile.
This painting belonged to Isabella of Castile, Queen of Spain, and was listed with 46 companion panels in an inventory of part of her estate in 1505. The panels – 27 survive in various collections – are all the same size and most show scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin. They were produced by Isabella’s court painters, Michael Sittow and Juan de Flandes.
The Virgin Mary, dressed in blue, here sits at the end of a large bed. An illuminated manuscript lies open at her feet, and in the front corner a grey and a white dove feed from the space left by a missing tile. The resurrected Christ, displaying the wounds of the Passion and carrying a golden cross on a long silvery staff, greets her. He is accompanied by the multitude he has brought out of limbo. Behind him are Adam and Eve while on his left is Saint John the Baptist. The elderly man and woman beside the bed are perhaps Mary’s parents. Scrolls – the medieval equivalent of speech bubbles – come from the mouths of Christ, Saint John and the Virgin. The words are Latin quotations from either the Bible or devotional literature.
The episode shown here is not found in the Bible. The painter may have followed the account of the meeting between the Virgin and the risen Christ in the Vita Christi (‘Life of Christ’), a fifteenth-century Catalan devotional text written by an abbess, Sor Isabel de Villena. Sor Isabel was related to Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile and her book was dedicated to Isabella, who perhaps recommended it to whoever advised the artists.
Although there are stylistic and technical differences between the surviving panels – some, like this one, have underdrawing but some don't, some are darker in colour than others, and figures are on different scales in different panels – it seems likely that de Flandes did most of them after he arrived in Spain in around 1496. Although the paint surface is worn in places, particularly the inscriptions and the head of Saint John, the undamaged parts, such as Christ’s face and wounds, are painted with very great skill. The minute catchlights in the Virgin’s eyes even differ in colour.
It’s not clear exactly what the paintings were for. Isabella died at Medina del Campo in November 1504 and her executors were directed to sell most of her belongings to pay her legacies. In February 1505 the officials preparing the inventory of her estate listed 47 little panels in a cupboard at the castle of Toro. Isabella did not actually live at Toro; it seems that the panels were brought there, along with many of her possessions, merely to be valued and sold. They were not arranged in any logical order and although they form a fairly complete cycle, it is possible that one or more were missing: 47 is an awkward number and there is no image of the Resurrection. The panels were sold separately: Isabella’s daughter-in-law Margaret of Austria obtained 32 of them, and kept them in a wooden box before having two made into a diptych.
This painting had a gilded border, and traces of borders remain on others in the series. It is likely that all had similar borders which would have acted as frames. They probably were intended to be used singly or in small groups as aids to private devotion.
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