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The Virgin Mary, the Christ Child in her lap, is seated on a marble throne that is topped with an elaborately carved canopy. Below, an angel offers a rose to Christ, but he is distracted by the pear held out by a second angel. Smaller canopies cover the niches on either side, which house the Archangel Michael on the left and an unidentified bishop saint on the right. Michael raises his sword, ready to strike the devil pinned beneath his feet – a reference to the cosmic battle described in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 12: 16).
The arches in the background are filled with a gilded three-dimensional pattern, which was created by building up a chalk-based ground that was then delicately carved away. The small size and high degree of finish of the painting, as well as its decoratively marbled reverse, suggest that it was intended as a private devotional picture.
The decorative elements of this small panel, which shows the Virgin and Child enthroned, are highly inventive and unusual. The elaborate throne is topped with an intricate triangular canopy, which is painted to imitate carved stone that has been delicately cut out or ‘pierced’ to reveal coloured marble within. Smaller canopies cover the niches on either side, which house the Archangel Michael on the left and an unidentified bishop saint on the right. The spaces between the throne’s stone trefoil (three-lobed) pointed arches are filled with a gilded three-dimensional carved background, which was created by building up a chalk-based ground that was then delicately carved away, like a miniature wood or stone carving.
Saint Michael raises his sword, ready to strike the devil pinned beneath his feet. The reptilian creature clutches desperately to the saint’s legs, jaws open in anguish. This cosmic battle is described in the Book of Revelation as an event that would occur at the end of the world (Revelation 12: 16). At this time, Michael would also play a role in the judgement of souls, weighing up their good and evil deeds. Here, a small figure representing a soul is kneeling on one side of the scales held by the saint. On the other, two little devils attempt to tip the verdict in the favour of evil, weighing their side down with a miniature millstone. The bishop saint is still in contrast with the drama of the figure of Michael. He holds a book and a crosier (bishop’s crook), and his jewel-encrusted mitre (hat) obscures most of his halo.
The Virgin’s melancholy expression is at odds with her vivid, exuberant surroundings. But the infant Christ lying on a white cloth on her lap recalls images of the adult Christ naked on his burial shroud at the Lamentation, where the Virgin mourns her son after his death. She clasps the sole of his foot tenderly here, drawing attention to the place where he would be wounded by the nails of the Crucifixion. The little angels surrounding the mother and child offer amusing diversion from the intensity of the Virgin’s thoughts of her son’s fate. Set in miniature niches, they are like sculptures brought to life. One angel at the Virgin’s feet offers a rose to Christ, but he is distracted by the pear held up by another angel. Those at the Virgin’s shoulders look down to see what’s going on. At the very top, the Archangel Gabriel greets the Virgin Mary, who bows her head in acceptance of the news that she will conceive the son of the God – the beginning of the Gospel stories that end with Christ’s death and resurrection.
The small size and high degree of finish of the painting, as well as its decoratively marbled reverse, suggest that it was intended as a private devotional picture. The colours are well preserved, suggesting it may have been covered by shutters, but as the panel has been trimmed down there is no evidence of the hinges that would have held the shutters in place; it may have been protected by a cover instead.
Michael Pacher and his workshop were well known for making large altarpiece ensembles that included paintings and wood carvings (such carvings may have inspired the effect of the background in this work). This picture is sometimes thought to have been painted by members of Pacher’s workshop, but its sophistication and complexity make this unlikely. Infrared photographs show that the underdrawing on this panel, where visible, is very similar to that on panels that are certainly attributed to the master himself. Apart from the difference in scale, the underdrawing resembles that of the large altarpiece he made for the church of Saint Wolfgang in the town of Saint Wolfgang im Salzkammergut.
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