Monday, April 02, 2012

Madonna of the Fireplace: Medium, Mastery and Meaning

Attributed to Jan Gossaert, called Mabuse (Flemish, 1478-1532),  Madonna of the Fireplace, ca. 1500,  oil on panel , 33 x 22 1/8 inches. 

Currently on view at the Georgia Museum of Art (GMOA), “A Divine Light: Northern Renaissance Paintings from the Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery” surveys devotional art of Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries. The exhibition explores Christian faith through setting, pose, gesture and everyday objects.

“Madonna of the Fireplace,” one of 28 paintings on display from the Bob Jones Collection, was restored in 2010, revealing its rich, vibrant color. It depicts figures in a highly realistic, unidealized manner, stresses detail and contains symbolism—all common characteristics of Northern Renaissance painting.  Although the artist of the work remains unknown, it is most likely one of Jan Gossaert’s contemporaries.

The composition also demonstrates the versatile qualities of its medium. Made popular in the 15th century by Flemish artist Jan van Eyck, oil created an avenue for Northern European artists to develop advanced techniques for paintings that truly came to life. Oil is slow to dry, which makes it possible to paint in layers and create value directly on canvas. 

The Virgin, the central and largest figure, is seated with Christ Child on her lap. Three singing angels stand behind her praising her as the Virgin mother and another angel emerges from a doorway with a spoon and a bowl of milk for the Christ Child. Christ, who is usually depicted sitting upright, is seen here on his stomach looking up at his mother while she looks down at him. The pyramid formed by the two figures, along with the use of single-point perspective, fortifies their significance. 

Symbols are found throughout the composition—the objects strewn across the floor, the furniture, the intricate design of the fireplace—that indicate wealth, family life, childhood and Christ’s life. Three prominent symbols include the fireplace, the Christ Child’s walker and the tiled floor.  Although the fireplace is positioned to the left of the Virgin and Christ Child, it remains a central fixture in the home that provided families with heat and light after dark. It also references the Eucharist, as the fireplace was where people baked bread. The wooden walker, located at the bottom right, is what Christ would have used to take his first steps and foreshadows the wooden Cross he would bear. The tiles on the floor form an octagonal pattern indicating Christ’s resurrection.

For an in-depth discussion of “Madonna of the Fireplace” and other Northern Renaissance paintings, join GMOA for our lectures by Trinita Kennedy and John Nolan on April 12.

“A Divine Light” runs through July 29. 

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