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Around the World at the Time of Columbus

Prosperity and Painters
Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy<br>Netherlandish, active about 1475-1505<br><i>Lamentation with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Catherine of Alexandria</i>, 1493-1501<br>Oil on panel
zoom Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy
Netherlandish, active about 1475-1505
Lamentation with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, 1493-1501
Oil on panel


During most of the 15th century, the city of Bruges (now in Belgium) was a rich international port. Trade centered on the woolen cloth produced in the region. Merchants from northern and southern Europe met in Bruges, exchanging luxury goods and supporting a sophisticated banking industry.

Great wealth created a demand for paintings, and Bruges attracted a highly talented group of artists. Rich merchants built large houses for themselves and sponsored private family chapels in churches, all of which needed decoration. This painting, by an artist known today only as the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy, was probably made for the altar of a private chapel.

The image of the Virgin Mary lamenting the death of her son is common in Christian art. But this picture places the scene clearly in 15th-century Bruges. The towers and rooftops of the city rise in the distance. Gold brocaded fabrics recall the famous cloth produced nearby. And the figure in rich robes cradling the head of Christ is almost certainly the wealthy man who paid for the picture.

Even as this picture was painted, however, the glory days of Bruges were waning. The river (visible in the background), Bruges’s vital link to the sea, silted up in the late 15th century and ship traffic ceased. A local rebellion caused foreign merchants to move to Antwerp. By the end of the 16th century, Bruges had become a modest and quiet city.

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1. [MAP] A river connecting Bruges to the sea allowed the city to become a center of trade in Europe.
2. Some of the buildings pictured here still stand in Bruges today.
3. Bruges was famous across Europe for luxurious fabrics like the gold brocade robe worn by the man holding Christ’s head.


September 2005