A stunning object of private devotion, this moving representation of The Virgin and Child set before a golden background corresponds to a type popularized in 15th-century Northern Europe by the Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden. Depicting a solemn Virgin Mary tenderly cradling the Christ Child in her arms, the painting is South Netherlandish in character, yet exhibits several key traits suggesting a German origin.
One can easily see how this painting, which we here introduce as the Stern Virgin and Child, first came to be associated with the Master of Flémalle, who is generally identified as Rogier van der Weyden's teacher, Robert Campin of Tournai (c. 1370/5-1444). The Virgin in the Stern panel, crowned by a magnificent white headdress with twisting angular drapery folds, ultimately derives from the famous, near-life-size depiction of The Virgin and Child from the altarpiece of c. 1425-1435 in the Städelmuseum, Frankfurt, after which the Master of Flémalle has been named. In particular, the Stern Virgin's physiognomy, the distinctive tilt of her head, and the manner in which she embraces her child with both hands recall the Frankfurt panel. Also reminiscent of the Master of Flémalle is the shimmering, textured gold in the background, which compares to a fragment from the Master of Flémalle's altarpiece of The Descent from the Cross (Städelmuseum, Frankfurt). At the same time, the overall handling of the figures, particularly the distinctive face of the Christ Child and the long, tapering, angular fingers of the Virgin, closely recall the works of Rogier van der Weyden. The blending of these two styles suggests that the present panel was painted by a highly accomplished artist of a slightly later generation, who was active early in the 4th quarter of the 15th century.
Maryan Ainsworth has observed that the primary source for the Stern Virgin's head was a lost composition by Rogier van der Weyden, known from a remarkably fine copy (often considered an autograph work) in metalpoint on paper in the Cabinet des Dessins, Louvre, Paris (inv. 20.664; fig. 1). The Virgin in the drawing similarly tilts her head to her left and possesses an analogous profile and features, including a high, domed forehead, almond-shaped eyes, prominent sloping eyebrows, and small, plump lips. Working from photographs, Dr. Ainsworth has further noted that the Stern Virgin and Child is closely related to an engraving by Martin Schongauer of The Virgin and Child crowned by two angels of c. 1470 (fig. 2). The distinctive motif of the Christ Child's right arm resting on the Virgin's breast is nearly identical, and the compositions are mirror images. She has therefore suggested that the present panel may have been based on a lost preparatory drawing by Schongauer, thus raising the possibility that the Master of the Stern Madonna was working in Colmar (written communication, 20 October 2013).
Till-Holger Borchert, who has seen the picture firsthand, has also noted its distinctly German character, in particular some stylistic similarities to the workshop of Hans Pleydenwurff, an artist who was active in Nuremberg during the third quarter of the 15th century, or to Friedrich Herlin from Nördlingen, both of whom were greatly influenced by the paintings of Rogier van der Weyden. Borchert observed that the Stern Virgin and Child's tapered hands and angular feet are reminiscent of this artist, yet ultimately concluded that the author of our panel is an as yet unidentified painter working under the influence of Roger van der Weyden in Germany, possibly in Franconia or the Upper-Rhine, c. 1470-1480.
As Ainsworth and Borchert have noted, technical examination of the panel supports such a theory. Infrared reflectography reveals that while the panel has been damaged in some places, the substantial underdrawing that is preserved is markedly un-Rogerian (fig. 3). Indeed, the cross-hatched modeling in the Virgin's cheek and by her temple, as well as the concentric curved lines around the eye at the nose are very similar to Schongauer's drawings, such the head of an angel in the Kupferstichkabinett SMPK, Berlin-Dahlem (Ainsworth, written communication, 20 October 2013; fig. 4). Interestingly, dendrochonological analysis conducted by Ian Tyers in August 2013 dates the panel to just after c. 1255, placing it among the earliest he has ever studied. Reusing panels from earlier works of art or wooden objects was not an uncommon practice in the late 15th century. The panel itself is a single oak board of north German or central Baltic origin, another indicator that the Stern Virgin and Child was painted in Germany rather than the Netherlands.
An alternative theory has been posited by Stephan Kemperdick, who on the basis of photographs has associated our painting with The Virgin and Child with a Flower in the Louvre, there given to a follower of Rogier van der Weyden (inv. R.F. 2067; see D. de Vos, op. cit., no. B18). Based on a lost work by Rogier, this latter painting has at times been attributed to an anonymous late-15th century follower of Rogier known as the Master of the Legend of Mary Magdalene. Most striking in connection with the Stern Virgin and Child is the Christ Child's open-collared white garment with pyramidal drapery folds, which is nearly identical. The infant in the Louvre panel also shows the same facial features as the Stern Christ Child, most notably the tightly cropped, curly golden locks of hair. Although Kemperdick rejects the attribution to the Magdalene Master for both paintings, he suggests that they were made either by the same artist, or artists with similar artistic temperaments, working around 1480 (written communication, 15 October 2013).
Thus, the author of this exquisite panel remains to be identified. Clearly painted by a gifted artist working in the tradition of the great Early Netherlandish masters Rogier van der Weyden and the Master of Flémalle sometime around 1470-80, this splended devotional picture provides an important touchstone for further scholarly research.
(fig. 1) Max Stern at the Dominion Gallery in 1985, National Gallery of Canada, Library and Archives, Fonds Max Stern, Yousef Karsh (1908-2002).
(fig. 1) Rogier van der Weyden, Head of the Virgin, Musée du Louvre, Paris, © RMN-Grand Palais Art Resource, NY.
(fig. 2) Martin Schongauer, The Virgin Mary and Christ on the crescent moon, Musée d'Unterlinden, Colmar.
(fig. 3) Infrared reflectogram of the present lot. © Art Access & Research (UK Ltd.).
(fig. 4) Martin Schongauer, An angel, half-length (possibly the Annunciate Angel), Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin.