The Virgin Mary is seated on a marble and porphyry throne within a church; an opening on the left leads to a landscape. The infant Christ squats on her lap, and two saints kneel on either side: Catherine of Alexandria on the left and Barbara on the right.
The naked child, wrapped in a white cloth, 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. Behind Saint Barbara is her symbol: the tower in which she was imprisoned.
This is one of the rare surviving examples of a Renaissance painting done on cloth rather than wooden panel; although many such paintings were made, they were extremely fragile.
The Virgin Mary is seated on a marble and porphyry throne within a church; an opening on the left leads to a landscape. A cloth of honour, apparently made of red velvet cloth-of-gold, hangs behind her. The infant Christ squats on her lap, and two saints – Catherine of Alexandria on the left and Barbara on the right – kneel on either side.
The naked child, a white cloth wound round his waist, is placing a ring on Saint Catherine’s finger, alluding to an episode traditionally known as her ‘mystic marriage’. According to the Golden Legend, Catherine was a fourth-century princess who converted to Christianity; here, she is dressed as a princess, with a sliver-grey fur bodice, a necklace of enormous pearls and more pearls in her headdress. When pressed to choose a husband, she stated that she had given herself to Christ and was rewarded with a vision in which Christ placed a wedding ring on her finger and declared her to be his spouse. She was later executed by the Roman emperor; the wheel on which she was tortured leans against a column behind her and she rests her left hand on the sword of her martyrdom.
The Virgin and Saint Barbara hold a red circlet decorated with pearls in a zigzag pattern. Barbara was a lady of high rank, and was imprisoned in a tower – visible just behind her head here – as a punishment for becoming a Christian. She was often paired with Saint Catherine in the art of the Low Countries around 1500.
This is one of the rare surviving examples of a Renaissance painting done on cloth rather than a wooden panel (another is The Entombment by Dirk Bouts). Although many such paintings were made, they were extremely fragile; this one has several tears and the paint is worn, exposing the canvas in some places. The support is linen and while there is no conventional ground, the fabric was probably coated with glue size made from animal skin. Cloth paintings were sometimes originally stretched over wooden boards rather than nailed to a frame, and the holes in this piece of linen could have been made by woodworm from such a backing panel. There are traces of a black painted border.
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