At first glance, this colorful and refined panel could almost appear to depict a contemporary gathering of elegant young ladies in an upper-class home in sixteenth-century Haarlem. Closer inspection, however, reveals that it is the Virgin Mary at the center of the composition, before a luxurious damask Cloth of Honor with a stylish, black and white-fringed canopy. She is seated on a richly-brocaded cushion, and gazes down toward the infant Christ on her lap, raising her hands above him in benediction. Two opulently dressed female saints sit before the holy Mother and Child, as if ladies-in-waiting for the Queen of Heaven. They too rest on cushions and each reads a sacred book in silent devotion. On the left, Mary Magdalene appears in a crimson dress with dark sleeves, the golden ointment jar with which she anointed Christ's feet (Luke 7:36-50) by her side. Across from her sits the virgin Saint Dorothy, identifiable by her attribute of a basket of apples and roses. As recounted in the Golden Legend, Dorothy was born of noble lineage, but convinced her family to forsake their wealth; rejecting the sexual advances of the Provost Fabricius by protesting that she had betrothed herself to God, Dorothy was condemned to a violent death. Before her execution, she had a vision of a child dressed in purple, who offered her a golden basket of roses and apples. Dorothy requested the child to give the basket to Theophilus, Diocletian's scribe. After her death, this child miraculously appeared before him and said, 'These be the roses and apples that my sister Dorothy hath sent to thee from Paradise, the garden of her spouse', inspiring his conversion and martyrdom. The Magdalene and Dorothy can also be recognized here in their roles as brides of Christ.
In the upper right, a window looks out onto an enclosed square, a possible reference to the hortus conclusus, a sacred precinct dedicated to the Virgin. Therein may be seen two peacocks, which can be understood as both symbols of Christ's immortality and resurrection as well as worldly pride and ambition. In the upper left, a silver vessel rests on the ground next to a bench with a green pillow, perhaps referring to the cleansing rituals of High Priests of the Temple of Jerusalem.
The anonymous Netherlandish author of this charming panel was given his placeholder name by Max J. Friedländer in 1927 after the diptych with The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, a Carthusian monk and Saint Barbara in the Herzog-Anton-Ulrich-Museum in Brunswick, which the scholar had formerly attributed to Geertgen tot Sint Jans (M.J. Friedländer, Die altniederländische Malerei, Berlin, 1924-1937; Eng. trans. as Early Netherlandish Painting, Leiden, 1967-1976, V, pp. 31-32). Indeed, the doll-like physiognomies of the figures in these paintings are highly reminiscent of Geertgen's style, and it is likely that the master either trained in Geertgen's workshop, or was strongly influenced by him. More recently, scholars have proposed a possible identification as Jacob van Haarlem, who according to Karel van Mander (Het schilder-boeck, 1604), trained Jan Mostaert. This may be the Jacob Jansz. Van Haarlem who is documented in Haarlem from 1483 until his death in 1509.