The iconography of this painting relates to the cult of the Virgin of the Rosary. The "rosary" refers to both the series of prayers recited and the string of prayer beads used as a memory device. Dominik of Prussia, a fifteenth-century Carthusian monk, recommended that worship of the Virgin of the Rosary be split into fifty events from the lives of Christ and the Virgin, known as mysteries. One mystery was assigned to each Ave Maria prayer in a chaplet (one third of the full rosary). The further diffusion of the cult was largely due to the work of Alanus de Rupe, a Dominican monk who founded the Confraternity of the Psalter of the Glorious Mary in Douai around 1475. His followers continued the advancement of the cult, and the Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary was first published in Unser Lieben Frawen Psalter, a devotional handbook dedicated to the Virgin, in 1483. Painted on a single panel which was cut into sixteen parts, the fifteen mysteries presented in the Museum's miniature altarpiece are divided into three registers of five images each: the five Joyful Mysteries (the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the Finding of the Child in the Temple); the five Sorrowful Mysteries (the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging of Christ, the Mocking of Christ, Christ Carrying the Cross, and the Crucifixion); and the five Glorious Mysteries (the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the Death of the Virgin, and the Coronation of the Virgin).
The lower portion of the painting shows the Virgin of the Rosary as Queen of Heaven. She stands on a tiled floor below a baldachin, and carries the Christ Child, who holds the end of a chaplet represented as a garland of roses. This garland consists of fifty white roses, separated into groups of ten, or decades, interspersed with five larger red roses. Like the beads of a hand-held rosary, each smaller rose represents an Ave Maria prayer ("Hail Mary"), and each larger one a Paternoster ("Our Father"). The Child raises his right hand in blessing to a kneeling gentleman, who is under attack from three men in armor, and from whose mouth a branch with three white roses emerges. This represents a miracle associated with the rosary, where a man was saved from his attackers when he knelt and prayed, and the Virgin of the Rosary appeared. Each Ave Maria he recited became a rose, which the Virgin wove into a garland. Although the armor of the attackers is somewhat archaic, the kneeling figure wears contemporary clothing, which may indicate that his likeness is that of the donor of the painting. To the left of the Virgin kneels Saint Dominic who, due to a mistake of identification with Dominic of Prussia, was traditionally associated with the rosary cult. He is identified by his attribute, a dog with a burning torch in his mouth. Behind the saint kneels a pope, an emperor, and a king, who together represent the Christian Estates. Their appearances seem somewhat generic, but it is possible that they are meant to represent the contemporary Leo X, Maximilian I, and a young Charles V, respectively.
Bauman (1989) relates the iconography and composition of this ensemble picture with a somewhat obscure woodcut, signed and dated by Brother Francisco Doménech in 1488. A modern impression of this print can be found in the Museum's collection (MMA 57.526). This print shows the same arrangement of the fifteen mysteries in three groups of five, above a similar scene of the Virgin of the Rosary flanked by the Christian Estates and the miracle of the nobleman who prayed the rosary. The background landscape of the bottom scene of the MMA altarpiece accurately depicts the park and palace of the dukes of Brabant in Brussels, known as the Coudenberg, as it appeared in the early sixteenth century. At the upper left corner, the church of Sainte Gudule in Brussels is recognizable. This accurate depiction corresponds with a sketch of the area, made by Albrecht Dürer on his visit to the Netherlands in 1520–21 (Kupferstichkabinett, Vienna). It seems likely that this ensemble was commissioned by someone in Brussels who was associated with the Hapsburg court, the Dominicans, and the cult of the Rosary. One possible identification for the patron is a lord of the Ravensteyns, a prestigious family of Brussels, who had given the Dominicans the part of their hôtel that was contiguous with the Dominican convent and church, established in 1464 (Sintobin 1998).
Some scholars have identified the artist as Goswijn van der Weyden, a grandson of the illustrious Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden. Held (1943) was the first to suggest this identification and he compared the style of these scenes to Goswijn’s retardataire style, and the millefleur ground cover in the bottom section to the artist’s 1507 Antonius Tsgrooten Triptych (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp). There is also a stylistic similarity to Goswijn’s Crucifixion Triptych of about 1517 (Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA). The date of about 1515–20 is due to the connections with the work of Dürer, both the landscape sketch mentioned above, and his Small Passion, a woodcut series from 1511 (MMA 1975.653.25), which strongly influenced the Annunciation scene in this altarpiece.