Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Unto us a Son is Given

A Holy, Blessed and Joyful Christmas to you all

Madonna of the Rose Bower

c. 1440

Stefan Lochner c.1400-1451

Oil on panel, 51 x 40 cm
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

This small panel which employs several iconographic models is an especially charming remnant of Cologne Gothic.

It depicts the "humble Madonna" (Madonna dell' Umiltà) as Mary is sitting on the ground or on a pillow placed on the ground, gently holding an infant in her lap. Their figures are surrounded by adoring angels who offer flowers and fruits to the baby Jesus. To create a backdrop for the scene, two diligent angels stretch out a golden brocade curtain which reminds the viewer of the reigning, victorious Madonna. At the same time, this curtain insures separation from the rest of the world and the intimacy of the holy family. Above, surrounded by light-rays, we can see God the Father and the dove of the Holy Spirit. This intimates the Immaculate Conception; thus the painting includes the depiction of the Holy Trinity. This is the picture of completeness with the Divine Mother as its centre.

The image of being enclosed is reinforced by another motif: the low stone wall around Mary, which recalls the "hortus conclusus" (enclosed garden), the symbol of Mary's purity and innocence.

The spectacular carpet of flowers covering the ground intimates the earthly Garden of Eden, as does the bower of roses. Roses were often connected with the Madonna; such a simile appears in several medieval Latin hymns to the Virgin.

The musical child angels in the foreground play an important part in the creation of an idyllic atmosphere. Their instruments - two different sized lutes, a harp and a portative organ - are realistically rendered, and their small hands reveal their musical expertise.

Image and Notes from the Web Galley of Art

This is, in effect a republication of the post I have produced for Christmas Day for several years, although last year I varied it with the equally fascinating votive panel of Archbishop John Ocko of Prague from circa 1370, which can be seen at O Come Let Us Adore Him.

Using it has become something of a tradition and Christmas is avery tradition-conscious time of the year. I particularly like this image of Our Lady and the Christ Child and I have also used it to decorate my Christmas letter to friends some years. As an image it combines great beauty and delicacy, the tenderness of the mother-child relatiomship, the joy and delight of the angel musicians, and the references in the rose bower to the rich biblical and liturgical horticultural images of new life and renewal. The notes accompanying the picture draw out the symbolism further. It is also a painting from a period of history which is of particular interest to me.

I hope it conveys some of the joy and hope as well as the delight of Christmas, and I wish that to all my readers.

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