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Gossaert, Saint Luke Painting the Madonna

Jan Gossaert, Saint Luke Painting the Madonna, c. 1515-25 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(cheerful music) Dr. Steven Zucker: According to legend, St. Luke had a vision of the Virgin Mary and Child, and painted that vision. As a result, he is the patron saint of painters. Dr. Beth Harris: You'll notice that St. Luke's eyes are half-closed, so we know that he is not actually seeing the Virgin and Child in front of him, but having a vision. Dr. Zucker: It is not his painting, in a sense. He is literally the hand of this angel. St. Luke's image, then, of the Virgin Mary and Child has a kind of authority because it is God's, actually, and not his. Dr. Harris: What's interesting then is that the artist, Gossaert, is painting his Virgin Mary and Child not from the same authority as the painter St. Luke, in his painting. One wonders about what it was like for artists to paint heavenly figures. How does one imagine the Virgin Mary? How does one paint Jesus Christ? These are, I think, difficult questions always for artists. Dr. Zucker: Right; we have absolutely no historical references to their likenesses, and so where is the authority of any painter who is transcribing their images? And that issue of even the legitimacy of transcribing an image is called into question in the top right corner, where the artist has rendered [in grise], in greys, a sculpture of Moses. You can tell it's Moses because he's holding the two tablets with the 10 laws. Dr. Harris: The 10 Commandments. Dr. Zucker: In the Christian tradition, he's shown with horns on his head, and so we know it's Moses. Moses seems to actually be pointing at something, and one of the laws is to not render people, not to render the fish below the sea, not to render the birds in the sky. The idea that the artist tries to take on the role of God, perhaps, by trying to create. Dr. Harris: "Thou shalt not create graven images," might be how most people know that commandment. Gossaert is living right at the time that the Protestant reformation begins, and one of the things that Luther's followers talked about is the danger of images, of people worshipping images instead of using them only as an aid in prayer. This is certainly reflecting on the role of the artist and whether images have a legitimacy or not. Dr. Zucker: Well, that's right. This is absolutely supporting the legitimacy of the artist creating religious imagery. Dr. Harris: Because one of the writers of the gospel, St. Luke himself, painted Mary. Dr. Zucker: And the artist has blown out all the stops. He is rendering every detail with a precision that comes out of the Northern tradition. Dr. Harris: We know that Gossaert copied Van Eyck. He's fully steeped in the Northern Rennaisance tradition of painting everything with a clarity and exactitude and attention to different textures. Dr. Zucker: Well, look at the angel's wings. Look at the detail of the relief carving in the architecture. This is an arist who is just enjoying the ability to magically render form. Now, look for just a second back at Moses and those two tablets. Notice the way that the shape of those two tablets rhyme with the architectural space. I think when most art historians look at this painting, they look back to this tradition of dividing the earthly space from the spiritual space. Certainly, that central column does that; but it also makes the entire painting two tablets. There is this way in which the tablets that Moses holds is actually embodied in the architectural space itself. Dr. Harris: That's true. Although we think about the space as being very classical-looking, looking like Ancient Roman architecture, with those round arches and pilasters, it's still to me a very mysterious space, much more like Northern Rennaisance spaces, where, as we look back toward Moses, we have those repeated round arches, moving back into a space that we can't quite determine there. Although the foreground of the painting seems to be carefully mapped out according to the rules of linear perscpective, which obviously Gossaert has learned as a Northern Rennaisance artist from traveling to Italy, but we see so much of the North here. If we look at the drapery that St. Luke wears, it's typical Northern Rennaisance, angular folds of drapery that we see in the art of Campin or Rogier van der Weyden. Dr. Zucker: And so is the color. Dr. Harris: The green that that angel wears against the complementary red color worn by St. Luke. There's a real thoughtfulness about color here. Dr. Zucker: This is an artist who was working in Antwerp, which was one of the great merchantile cities of the 15th and early 16th Centuries. That was a culture and an economy that was based on importation, that was based on trade, and, in some ways, this is a painting that is also trading. Dr. Harris: That idea of the North and the South coming together that we see in the work of [Dore] and beginning with Michael Pacher in the late 15th Century. (lively music)