Arts of Europe

St. Ursula

Madonna and Child with Four Saints, ca. 1465–70
Master of the Saint Ursula Legend (Flanders, active ca. 1470–90)
Oil on panel
29 1/2 x 37 inches
Gift of Katherine Trees Livezey and George S. Trees, and the Ellnora D. Krannert Fund

Painted representations of the sacra conversazione—the Virgin Mary, the Christ Child, and saints appearing to "converse" with one another in a unified space—were popular throughout western Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In this panel, the enthroned Virgin holds the Christ Child, who rests his left hand on a prayer book while blessing the viewer with his right. The four saints are identifiable by the attributes they wear or carry. From left to right they include: Augustine (wearing bishop's robes and holding a crozier, the staff used in Mass); John the Baptist (in a hermit's brown cloak, gesturing to the sacrificial lamb); Monica (Augustine's mother, dressed in a nun's habit, reading a prayer book); and Nicholas of Tolentino (an Augustian saint, wearing monk's robes and holding lilies and a star). Only John the Baptist is historically contemporaneous with the Virgin and Christ. The other three saints are thematically related, and their inclusion hints at the devotional interests of the (unknown) patron of this painting.

This sacred gathering occurs within a fifteenth-century interior, as evidenced by the tiled floor and the pictorial convention of a distant view of a northern European landscape through a window. The room is decorated with canopies, including one embroidered with pomegranates directly behind the Virgin and Child.

The panel has been attributed to the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend on the basis of comparison with known works by the artist. Underdrawings on the panel, recently discovered through infrared reflectography, are characteristic of the Master's artistic practice. His customary diagonal hatchings are especially evident beneath the angular folds of the Virgin's robe where the paint has become transparent with age.

The moderately large size of the panel suggests that it was originally designed as an altarpiece for a small private chapel.

Text by Megan Foster-Campbell, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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