The Virgin Mary breastfeeds the infant Christ in a walled garden surrounded by flowers. God the Father, a small figure radiating light, appears in the sky above. The image of the Virgin and Christ Child in a garden was derived from the poetic imagery of the Song of Solomon, a book of the Old Testament. In it, a woman is described as a lily and a rose as well as an enclosed garden (which, when associated with Mary, came to symbolise her virginity).
This painting was probably made by members of Dürer’s workshop. It includes flowers that are derived from his detailed watercolour studies of the natural world – one of his particular artistic preoccupations – many of which would have been available in the workshop. Each floral element had theological significance: the iris and the rose were associated with the Virgin’s ‘Seven Sorrows’, while the grapevine with large leaves and delicate tendrils was a symbol of the Eucharist (when Christians drink wine at Mass in remembrance of Christ).
The Virgin Mary breastfeeds the infant Christ in a walled garden surrounded by vegetation and spring flowers. An arch in the wall reveals the sea beyond, while God the Father – a small figure radiating light – appears in the sky above.
The image of the Virgin and Christ Child in a garden was derived from the imagery of the Old Testament book, the Song of Solomon. It is a collection of love poems in which a woman describes herself as ‘the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys’ (Song of Solomon 2:1), as well as an enclosed garden, often referred to by the Latin term hortus conclusus. The woman in the text was associated with Mary, and the enclosed garden was seen as a metaphor of her perpetual virginity.
The image was extremely popular in the Middle Ages and maintained its popularity in Dürer’s lifetime. He made several prints and drawings of the Virgin and Child in the hortus conclusus, a theme he began to develop in studies in around 1503. The garden setting suited the contemporary enthusiasm in Germany in particular for the close study of nature. Each floral element in this painting also has theological significance. The iris was associated with the Virgin’s ‘Seven Sorrows’ – resembling a sword, it was linked with the metaphorical sword that the priest Simeon told Mary would pierce her soul (Luke 2: 35). The grapevine with large leaves and delicate tendrils was a symbol of the Eucharist (when Christians drink wine at Mass in remembrance of Christ).
Dürer’s many detailed watercolour studies of flowers, vegetation, landscapes and animals reflect his idea that, as he wrote, ‘The more exactly one equals nature, the better the picture looks’. The iris is virtually identical to a watercolour study now in the Kunsthalle Bremen, while the peonies to the right relate very closely to a study of the flower made by Schongauer, which Dürer almost certainly owned. One of Dürer’s most famous studies of a humble patch of turf (Albertina, Vienna) seems to have inspired the vegetation on the left of the grassy bench around the Virgin’s mantle, and the bugle and the lily of the valley (neither of which are in flower) resemble a drawing by the workshop (British Museum, London). All of these would have been available in Dürer’s workshop.
Although the work is not by Dürer’s own hand, the reuse of many of these studies suggests that the picture was produced in his workshop, possibly while he was in Venice in 1505–7. Infrared reflectography reveals the drawing beneath the paint surface and has shown that several artists were involved, though we cannot identify specific individuals. The underdrawing of the Virgin and Christ Child is careful and precise, suggesting they were copied from an existing design. A rose was drawn to the right of the Virgin’s head but was not included in the final image, while the grasses and plants at the left do not appear in the underdrawing they were added during the painting process. The iris was freely drawn but altered in the final painting. These discrepancies suggest the work was composed in sequential phases by different painters. The butterfly perching on the Virgin’s mantle and her white veil were added on top of the painting’s varnish layer.
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