This tiny painting – almost postcard sized – shows an endearing fireside scene: Christ’s bath time. The Virgin sits on a cushion on the floor, surrounded by domestic paraphernalia. There is a brass bowl in front of the fire, and a basket of white cloths – presumably nappies or swaddling bands – on the floor.
Although Mary and Jesus are biblical figures the artist has placed them in a wealthy fifteenth-century Netherlandish home. Rays around their heads remind us that this is no ordinary mother, but the Mother of God. The naked Child twists on her lap, to kiss his mother’s lips and stroke her chin with his left hand; with the other hand, he touches his genitals. His unusual gesture perhaps refers to the idea that the Virgin, as a symbol of the Church, was understood in the Middle Ages as the bride of Christ.
This tiny painting – almost postcard sized – shows an endearing fireside scene: Christ’s bath time. The Virgin Mary sits on a cushion on the floor, surrounded by domestic paraphernalia, clasping her son tightly in both hands and pressing her face to his.
Although they are biblical figures, the artist has placed Mary and Christ in a fifteenth-century Netherlandish home. Behind Mary is a wooden bench covered with the same cloth of gold as her cushion. This is a wealthy, even palatial, household: the walls are partly panelled, the windows partly glazed and shuttered; there is a large stone fireplace with tongs and fire dog; the bench and the Virgin’s cushion are of matching cloth of gold. The artist has shown off his skill by including a variety of light sources and consequent shadows. Though it is sunny outside, light streams through the half-open shutters, casting double shadows on the walls. A fire burns brightly in the grate and a candle has been lit in a sconce above the fireplace. Small puffs of smoke and floating embers rise from the smouldering logs and the flickering flames light the sides of the hearth.
A brass bowl in front of the fire and a basket of white cloths – presumably nappies or swaddling bands – sit on the floor. Mary wears a rich blue dress which falls into intricate, angular folds. Her sleeves are trimmed with grey fur, and her red sandal peeps out from under its edge. Her long uncovered hair was a symbol both of her virginity and of her royal status. Golden rays around the Virgin and Child’s heads remind us that this is no ordinary mother, but the Mother of God. The naked Christ Child twists on her lap, to kiss his mother’s lips and stroke her chin with his left hand. The Virgin and Child embracing was a common motif in Italian and Byzantine art, as in The Virgin and Child with Two Angels, but here he also touches his genitals – though someone has damaged the painting so it’s hard to see exactly what he is doing. In fifteenth-century Netherlandish painting the Child often displays his genitals, but here his gesture is unusual. It perhaps refers to his Circumcision, or more probably to the idea that the Virgin, as a symbol of the Church, was understood in the Middle Ages as the bride of Christ.
The composition is thought to have been derived from a lost painting by Campin. Certain stylistic features are similar to works by Jaques Daret, one of Campin’s apprentices, who became a master of the Tournai painters' guild in 1432.
The framed panel was made by gouging out of the surface of the plank, leaving a raised lip for the frame. The wood, its vertical grain now clearly visible, is Baltic oak, cut from the same tree as Portrait of a Franciscan (?), also by Campin’s workshop – the two panels were clearly made by the same carpenter. They do not seem to have been designed to be seen together, however: there are no marks of hinges on the sides and they seem to be by different artists, although probably active in the same workshop. The back was originally marbled in red, black and white and the frame was possibly marbled too. In the Middle Ages paintings were not always hung on walls, and a small panel like this could kept in a box or a bag, and carried from place to place to use for private devotion.
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