Infrared reflectography of this small, jewel-like picture reveals a beautiful underdrawing executed in a liquid medium (fig. 1). We are grateful to Dr. Maryan Ainsworth, Curator of European Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, for drawing our attention to the fact that this underdrawing is extremely close in style to that in a large Lamentation by Ambrosius Benson in that collection (possibly c. 1520-1525, 91.4 x 56.2 cm.). The composition relates to a complex group of works attributed to Gerard David, Benson, Adriaen Isenbrandt and the manuscript illuminator Simon Bening, originating in the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by David, of c. 1510-1520, in the Prado, Madrid (60 x 39 cm). The interrelationship between these works is discussed in detail by Jean Wilson, and seems to have hinged on the dissemination of studio pattern drawings or models, which were scaled up and down depending on the size of the painting, and which could be reversed by pouncing or tracing (J.C. Wilson, loc. cit., 1991, and op. cit. 1998, pp. 87-131). Tracing seems to have been the method employed in the present work, as can be clearly discerned in the infrared reflectogram in areas such as the nape of the Virgin's neck.
This is the smallest known version of the composition, and the smallest known picture attributed to Benson, the next largest being about 19-21 cm. high (for example, the Virgin and Child sold in these Rooms, 28 April 2006, lot 35, £153,600). Particularly close in composition, but in reverse, is a version of larger size, also in the Metropolitan Museum, published by Wilson as by a follower of Gerard David, c. 1520-1530, but recently recatalogued as attributed to Simon Bening (25.4 x 21 cm.; J.C. Wilson, op. cit. 1998, fig. 42). The proportions of the Virgin's head in the present work resemble Bening's facial types, while the detailed landscape background, with a figure watering his mount at a pool (perhaps an allusion to Saint Joseph on the Rest on the Flight), owes a clear debt to contemporary manuscript illumination of the Bruges school. The composition is more rarely encountered in the present sense, with the Virgin facing right; the only other documented example is a work highly characteristic of Benson's style, sold at Galerie Fischer, Lucerne, 17 June 1950, lot 2363 (27 x 20.5 cm.). We are grateful to Jan van Helmont for identifying the coat-of-arms on the reverse that suggests that this work found its way to the Iberian peninsula within Benson's lifetime, as indeed was the case with many if not most of his works.