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Color My World

Coloring the real world
Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy (Netherlandish, active 1480–1500)<br><b><i>Lamentation with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Catherine of Alexandria,</b></i> 1493–1501<br>Oil on panel
zoom Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy (Netherlandish, active 1480–1500)
Lamentation with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, 1493–1501
Oil on panel


Imagine yourself in a church five hundred years ago in the city of Bruges (now in Belgium). Candles flicker in the darkness. You blink and rub your eyes. The painted scene on the altarpiece before you looks so real.

You can almost feel the thick golden brocade of the robes. The fabrics look like those produced in nearby workshops. You recognize the towers of Bruges on the horizon. Familiar hills fade into the distance. And there in the center, Mary sadly holds her dead son, Jesus. They seem as real as the world you see around you every day.

The name of the artist who painted this altarpiece is unknown today. Whoever he was, he had mastered a new way of painting. About one hundred years earlier, painters in northern Europe had begun mixing their colors with oil. Oil made the paint dry more slowly, so artists could layer and blend colors to create more lifelike images.

Pictures made with oil paints added drama to the teachings of Christianity. For most of the year, the scene on this altarpiece was hidden from view. The two side panels folded in on hinges, covering it. On the closed panels, gray figures painted to look like sculptures gave no hint of the wonders within. When the panels were opened on holy days to reveal the colorful painting inside, it must have seemed like a miracle.

November 2004