This small devotional panel, elegant and restrained, is a characteristic example of the work of the Master of the Female Half-Lengths. Though his identity remains elusive, the artist was active in Antwerp during the first half of the sixteenth century, heading a thriving workshop, and specialising in the production of small and precious depictions of women playing music, reading, writing or praying. His religious and devotional subjects, such as the Magdalene or the Virgin and Child, judging by their number, were very much in demand.
The Virgin’s courtly demeanour in this picture is characteristic, with her gracefully inclined head, her pensive, downcast eyes, idealised features and smooth complexion, all modelled with great delicacy. Yet the overall composition, with the Virgin’s frontal appearance and the position of the child, derives – albeit in reverse – from a type established some decades earlier by Gerard David, in his Virgin and Child (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie). There is an immediacy and tenderness to the Master’s depiction of the bond that ties the Holy Mother to her Son. The theme of the Virgo Lactans, or nursing Virgin, was popular in fifteenth and sixteenth century Netherlands. It emphasised the human quality of Christ, the reality of his incarnation, and the Virgin’s role in bringing about human salvation. Although there would appear to be no other version of this work, the type of this Virgin is found in a panel in the Museu de Arte Antiga in Lisbon.