A walled medieval garden is the setting for a scene from Christian legend. The Virgin Mary has the Christ Child on her knee. Beside her on the grass are two elegantly dressed women, Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene.
It is a cultured gathering. Catherine and Mary Magdalene hold books and the Virgin turns the pages of another. Under the rose-covered pergola angels sing, play musical instruments or pick flowers. In the centre, Christ places a ring on Saint Catherine’s finger. Traditionally known as the mystic marriage of Saint Catherine, this was a way of visualising her spiritual union with Christ.
This is the only Portuguese painting in the National Gallery. When it arrived it was tentatively attributed to Frei Carlos, a Netherlandish painter who worked in Portugal, but its condition today makes it difficult to attribute to any particular artist. Many of the colours have changed and it would once have appeared much brighter.
A walled medieval garden is the setting for a scene from Christian legend. The Virgin Mary sits on a chair, the Christ Child on her knee. On the grass beside her are two elegantly dressed women, Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Mary Magdalene. Behind them Joseph, carrying a basket, has just come into the garden.
We can identify these figures by their attributes. A broken, spiked wheel and a sword – the instruments of her martyrdom – lie beside Saint Catherine, who wears a crown. Saint Mary Magdalene, in a stylish dress and hat, has a glass pot on the grass next to her, containing the oil with which she anointed Christ’s feet.
In the centre, Christ places a ring on Saint Catherine’s finger. The scene, traditionally known as the mystic marriage of Saint Catherine, was a way of visualising her spiritual union with Christ. According to her legend, when Catherine was young she had a dream in which Christ accepted her as his spouse and put a ring – the ring of faith – on her finger. Later, when the Roman emperor proposed to her, she refused: she was already married to Christ. The emperor had her executed. The mystic marriage was a very popular subject in northern European art – another version is Gerard David’s The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor.
It is a cultured gathering. Catherine and Mary Magdalene hold books and the Virgin turns the pages of another. Under the rose-covered pergola angels sing, play musical instruments or pick flowers. Both the enclosed garden – the hortus conclusus of the Song of Songs, a book of the Old Testament – and roses were symbols of the Virgin in the Middle Ages. But the garden itself, with its high wall, neat beds and tidy paths, gives a good idea of what late medieval gardens were actually like, and the building behind is a typical fifteenth-century house. For people at that time, the Virgin and saints existed here and now, as well as in sacred history.
This small panel is the only Portuguese painting in our collection. We aren't sure who painted it, although they were clearly influenced by Netherlandish artists, such as Hans Memling, who were hugely fashionable across Europe in the late fifteenth century. The facial features of the figures, the angular folds of their draperies and the artist’s interest in three-dimensional space recall the paintings of Frei Carlos, a Netherlandish monk who ran a workshop at the Espinheiro Monastery near Evora, Portugal, in the 1520s. When the painting arrived at the Gallery it was tentatively attributed to him, but its condition today makes it difficult to attribute to any particular artist.
The colours would once have appeared much brighter. The blue of the Virgin’s dress was done using smalt which has turned brown. The pink draperies worn by Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene and Joseph’s robe would have been more colourful: the red lake pigment has faded. The green of the grass has also darkened, making it hard to see the plants and flowers scattered within it.
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