Devotional images of the breastfeeding Virgin, the Virgo lactans, became extremely popular in fifteenth-century painting, particularly in Bruges, where the Sint-Donaaskerk housed relics of Mary’s hair and milk. While the motif generally derives from a Byzantine icon type (galaktotrophousa), the Virgin and Child in this picture were quoted from Rogier van der Weyden’s Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The seemingly archaic trompe l'oeil golden niche returns the image to its status as an icon.
The frame is original; hinge holes (now plugged) indicate that the panel was formerly the central element of a triptych.
The Master of the Saint Ursula Legend is the name ascribed to the anonymous artist of a series of paintings depicting the life of this saint (Groeningemuseum, Bruges), which was made for the Cloister of the Black Sisters in Bruges. The artist was a contemporary of Memling’s in Bruges, but he was most strongly influenced by Rogier van der Weyden. The hair of the Virgin in the MMA painting is particularly characteristic of the hand of this master with its deep part, high widow’s peak, and schematic waves on either side of her face. Sint-Donaaskerk (Saint Donatian’s church) in Bruges was famous for its relics of the Virgin’s hair and her milk, which contributed to the popularity of the devotional image of the Virgo lactans. The type derives from Byzantine icons of the breast-feeding Virgin, known as the Galaktotrophousa. The specific motif of the Virgin and Child in this painting comes from Rogier van der Weyden’s Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), dating around 1435–40. Rogier’s workshop and followers produced several paintings based on the Saint Luke panel, and those closely resembling the Museum's example can be found in the collections of the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, and the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. These paintings are nearly identical in size, indicating that they may have derived from the same workshop pattern. While the MMA painting does not show evidence of an underdrawing, those in the closely related panels reveal the use of pouncing to transfer the design from a cartoon to the panel (Sperling 1998). This painting differs from the other versions in its arched top, and in the lack of a domestic interior setting. Instead, the mother and infant are presented before a trompe l’oeil golden niche, adding to the mystical aura of the image. The two plugged hinge holes on each side of the outer arch may indicate that the Virgin and Child was once the central panel of a devotional triptych. The missing side panels may have shown music-playing angels, saints, or, less likely, reverential donors. 
[Horace Buttery, London, in 1898]; Stanley Mortimer II, New York (until 1909); [Kleinberger, New York, 1909]; J. Pierpont Morgan, New York (1909–d. 1913; his estate, New York, 1913–17)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 22, 1998–February 21, 1999, no. 49.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261–1557)," March 23–July 4, 2004, no. 341.
B[ryson]. B[urroughs]. "Recent Loans." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 4 (September 1909), p. 154.
W. R. V[alentiner]. "Two Paintings Acquired for the Minneapolis Institute of Fine Arts." Art in America 2 (1914), p. 164, attributes it to the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend.
Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 2, Rogier van der Weyden und der Meister von Flémalle. Berlin, 1924, p. 129, no. 107g, calls it one of many similar compositions with the Virgin nursing the Child, one hand at her breast, that are derived from Rogier's composition of Saint Luke Painting the Virgin [original in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston]; ascribes it to a competent follower of Rogier, thoroughly in his style
Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 6, Memling und Gerard David. Berlin, 1928, pp. 62, 137, no. 120, mentions this picture among works in which the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend follows Rogier so closely that his personal style can hardly be recognized.
Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 75–76, ill.
Pierre Bautier. "Le maître brugeois de la légende de sainte Ursule." Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts Bulletin 5 (March 1956), p. 5, fig. 2.
Erik Larsen. Les primitifs flamands au Musée Metropolitain de New York. Utrecht, 1960, p. 121, rejects the attribution to the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend, calling the panel an anonymous work of the end of the fifteenth century.
Colin Tobias Eisler. "New England Museums." New England Museums [Les primitifs flamands, I: Corpus de la peinture des anciens pays-bas méridionaux au quinzième siècle, vol. 4]. Brussels, 1961, p. 106, publishes a letter from W. R. Valentiner mentioning this work.
Georges Marlier. "Le Maître de la Légende de sainte Ursule." Jaarboek / Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (1964), pp. 17, 37, notes that the attribution to the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend has been contested and merits further discussion.
Max J. Friedländer et al. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 2, Rogier van der Weyden and the Master of Flémalle. New York, 1967, pp. 83, 101 n. 99, no. 107g.
Giovanni Carandente. Collections d'Italie, I: Sicile [Les primitifs flamands, II: Répertoire des peintures flamandes du quinzième siècle, vol. 3]. Vol. 3, Brussels, 1968, p. 20.
D. Farmer. Primitifs flamands anonymes. Exh. cat., Groeninge Museum. Bruges, 1969, pp. 45, 203, ill.
Nicole Reynaud and Jacques Foucart. "Expositions: Primitifs flamands anonymes, 1969." Revue de l'art no. 8 (1970), p. 68, reject the attribution of this picture to the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend, noting its soft and uniform sweetness, as well as the linear drawing that derives directly from a Rogerian prototype, without the reinterpretation so characteristic of the Master.
Dirk De Vos. "De Madonna-en-Kindtypologie bij Rogier van der Weyden en enkele minder gekende Flemalleske Voorlopers." Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen 30 (1971), p. 127, fig. 60
, lists this panel with twenty-three other works derived from Rogier's composition of the Madonna and Child with Saint Luke; places ours with the sub-group associated with the Master of the Ursula Legend.
Molly Faries, Barbara Heller, and Daniel Levine. "The Recently Discovered Underdrawings of the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend's 'Triptych of the Nativity'." Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 62, no. 4 (1987), p. 19 n. 21.
Daniel Michael Levine. "The Bruges Master of the St. Ursula Legend Re-considered." PhD diss., Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, 1989, pp. 76–77, 87 n. 35, pp. 97–98, 115, nn. 27–28, pp. 143, 261–62, cat. no. N4, lists it with works no longer attributed to the Ursula Master and notes that "it shares in its contours the outlines of at least two other paintings in Brussels [Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique] and Cambridge, Mass. [Fogg Art Museum]," which are virtually identical in size; finds the hair-line similar to that which Friedländer associates with the Master, but the mouth not large enough, and the eyes almost "closed and invisible" in comparison with "the large, dark eyes so common to works ascribed to him".
Jeltje Dijkstra. "Origineel en Kopie: Een Onderzoek naar de Navolging van de Meester van Flémalle en Rogier van der Weyden." PhD diss., Universiteit van Amsterdam, 1990, pp. 129, 244 n. 401, p. 250 n. 457, calls it the left wing of an altarpiece ascribed to the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend, noting that the Virgin's head is treated in a similar manner in the Cambridge and Brussels versions; tentatively ascribes the latter to the same hand
Chiyo Ishikawa. "Rogier van der Weyden's Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin Reexamined." Journal of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 2 (1990), pp. 59 n. 26, p. 64, notes that according to Maryan Ainsworth, no underdrawing was visible when this work was studied with infrared reflectography, possibly due to the thickness of the paint.
Cyriel Stroo and Pascale Syfer-d'Olne. The Flemish Primitives I: Catalogue of Early Netherlandish Painting in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Ed. Elizabeth Moodey and Stanton Thomas. Vol. 1, The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden Groups. Brussels, 1996, pp. 171, 173 n. 21, ill., calls the attribution of our picture uncertain, noting, however, that the Christ Child's head and face are stylistically closer to the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend than they are in the Brussels and Cambridge pictures.
Pascal d'Olne. Letter to Lisa Murphy. November 17, 1997, notes that when he superimposed a tracing of our panel on the version in Brussels the correspondence was rather faithful, although he found that the contours diverged in certain areas; considers it possible, nevertheless, that the two pictures derive from the same model.
Della Clason Sperling inFrom Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ed. Maryan W. Ainsworth and Keith Christiansen. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1998, pp. 85, 224–25, no. 49, ill. (color), observes that it may once have been the central panel of a triptych, as plugged hinge holes are visible on both sides of the frame, which is original; believes that this panel and five other versions of the composition were made from the same pattern, most likely in the same workshop, presumably in Bruges.
Maryan W. Ainsworth inByzantium: Faith and Power (1261–1557). Ed. Helen C. Evans. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2004, pp. 554, 572–73, no. 341, ill. (color) p. 572 and fig. 17.16, notes that while the Virgin and Child here have been extracted from Rogier van der Weyden's composition of Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin [Museum of Fine Arts, Boston], the artist has "shifted the representational emphasis from a contemporary timely narrative to an eternal iconic one in order to produce a 'living icon,' à la façon grèce".