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Virgin and Child in a Landscape

This picture is nearly identical in composition.
Master of the Embroidered Foliage, Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angel Musicians (triptych), about 1500, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille

The poses of Mary and Jesus are the same, but a 15th-century Netherlandish city appears in the background.
Master of the Embroidered Foliage, Virgin and Child Enthroned, about 1500, The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

Here Mary and Jesus sit in a garden enclosed by a stone wall, and angels place a crown on Mary’s head.
Master of the Embroidered Foliage, Virgin and Child Crowned by Two Angels, about 1500, Stedelijke Musea Bruges, Groeningemuseum

key idea
The painter’s name is unknown, but a comparison of similar pictures might tell something about him.

Artists rarely signed their paintings in 15th-century Europe. Scholars can sometimes use documents, such as records of payment, to link an artist’s name to a group of pictures that seem to be by the same person. But often no such records exist.

In the 1920s a German art historian noticed a number of paintings, including this one, that might all be the work of the same artist. One clue was how the leaves were painted. Every leaf, near or far, appears sharp and clear. The effect reminded the scholar of embroidery, so he called the unknown painter the Master of the Embroidered Foliage. In several of these pictures Mary sits in the same pose, tilting her head to the side, and the Christ child’s pose is also the same. Only the backgrounds are different.

These days, the tools of science can help show whether one person actually painted all the pictures. Scholars recently used X-ray photography and other techniques to examine four paintings thought to be by the Master of the Embroidered Foliage. They found important differences invisible to the eye. For example, one picture has branches under the leaves of the trees while another does not. However, until they know more about who the painters might have been, scholars will keep using the name Master of the Embroidered Foliage.

But if the paintings are really by different artists, why do they look so much alike? In the 15th century, paintings were often made in workshops, where several artists had a hand in making a single picture. And it was common for workshops to share patterns for paintings. The figures of Mary and Christ appear to have been copied from a picture by the leading Netherlandish painter of the time, Rogier van der Weyden. Many people must have ordered versions of this picture, asking for slightly different details in the background.

January 2005