How to See a Domestic Goddess
by Mark Calderwood
Next to the giant, dazzlingly coloured altarpieces that dominate the hushed gallery space, it’s nothing- a small, unremarkable painting. Yet it stops people in their tracks. The intense colours leap out from the tiny panel with an impact worthy of its larger counterparts…but rather than an overpowering vision it is a tiny window, giving an tender, intimate glimpse into another world.
Dated to around 1433, the Virgin and Child (also known as the Ince Hall Madonna) is one of the National Gallery of Victoria’s hidden gems. Attributed (although not officially) to Netherlandish master Jan van Eyck, the painting is a fine example of Flemish devotional painting of the period. Painted in oil on wooden panel with matchless skill and minutely observed detail, it depicts a charming domestic scene of the Virgin seated with the infant Christ; a familiar, simple religious image.But far from being a ‘simple’ image, the Virgin and Child is packed to bursting with hidden meanings, which by looking at the culture of the time, we can decipher.
By the late middle ages, the wealthy merchant classes of Flanders had enthusiastically adopted the movement called devotio moderna, fuelling a demand for accessible religious imagery, articulated in terms of domestic life and household objects. Van Eyck was among the very first artists to create a new class of religious imagery, breaking with gothic tradition and turning devotio moderna’s assertion of the presence of the divine amid the everyday into a visual language that was once at once utterly symbolic and utterly real.
Someone from its intended audience would immediately recognise the iconography in this Virgin and Child as complex and controversial. Unlike earlier painters’ homely bourgeois Virgins, van Eyck’s Madonna is majestic. The richly coloured and jewelled robe, brocaded cloth of honour and physical separation of the figures conform to his usual depictions of the Virgin as Regina Coeli– although here, rather than an elaborate throne she is seated on a cushion in the popular (but uncharacteristic of van Eyck) pose of the ‘Madonna of Humility’, emphasising her obedient humanity. An extravagant worldly indulgence, the Oriental carpet at her feet is here an abstraction of the enclosed garden, the medieval symbol of both Mary’s virginity and Paradise itself. The floral symbolism is continued in the staggeringly expensive canopy textile, which incorporates motifs suggestive of the tree of Jesse, Christ’s Biblical reference to himself as the true vine, the Marian icon of pomegranates (curiously omitting the more common roses) and a palmette implying the queen of Heaven’s crown.
Each of the furnishings and domestic objects in the scene furthers the symbolic strata, easily discernable to the spectator accustomed to an abundance of visual cues to meaning. The triple-branched chandelier obviously and unambiguously represents the trinity; the ring of keys with one very pointedly in the lock of the closed coffer is as a reference to the schismatic Church. The ewer and basin that commonly appears in similar works is often presumed to indicate the Virgin’s purity, although even this is by no means as clear-cut as it appears. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was hotly debated during the 1430s, and even an innocuous domestic object would be understood as a wider reference to a social and theological controversy. With the placement and gleaming crescent arc of the basin similar to later conventional depictions of Immaculate Conception, van Eyck seems to not merely record the argument, but to agitate for a position.
The three legs of the wooden bench beneath the window, extending beyond the picture plane into the viewer’s space, again suggest the trinity but also again plays on the humble humanity of the holy figures, of Christ the carpenter’s son. The carafe of water recalls the medieval motif of light piercing but not breaking a crystal vessel as a metaphor for the Incarnation, although the golden liquid may also suggest olive oil and Christ’s predestined anguish on the Mount of Olives- or is simply an excuse for the artist to paint water, glass and light with masterful virtuosity. The golden apples on the windowsill are a stock feature in Flemish religious art, referencing both the fall of man and his redemption through Mary, the ‘new Eve’.
This is not to say that a contemporary spectator would read the canopy, carpet and jewels as literally present in the middle-class scene, but rather as indications of a transfigured, sanctified arrangement of reality. Artistic, religious and social thought of the time came out of a complex play between convoluted medieval exegesis and pictorial skepticism: realism and symbol, surface and depth were not exclusive, but subject to a web of overlapping meanings and relationships that was well understood by van Eyck’s patrons, educated and aspirational urban-dwellers who moved in courtly circles.
Most likely intended to hang above a prie-dieu for private devotional use, the richness of the tiny panel undoubtedly reflected the wealth its upper-class patron- but it was the minute attention paid to detail that acted to hold the eye and draw the viewer into a state of prayerful contemplation, allowing stillness in the bustle of city life to see the deeper meanings embedded in the secular world.
And in that regard, even across the globe and the gulf of centuries, this tiny Virgin and Child still packs a punch.