: Bernard van Orley was born about 1488 in Brussels into a family of painters, and was likely trained by his father Valentin. Although he apparently never traveled to Italy, Van Orley became one of the earliest and greatest exponents of an Italian-Renaissance-inspired style known as Romanism. His assimilation of this style came by way of Raphael’s large-scale designs (cartoons) for a set of tapestries illustrating the Acts of the Apostles for display in the Sistine Chapel in Rome; the cartoons were sent to be woven in Brussels in 1516. Brussels was world-renowned at the time as the center for tapestry manufacture in Europe but it had been superseded by Antwerp as the pre-eminent center for painting. A savvy entrepreneur, Van Orley thus established himself as a leading painter-designer (peintre-inventeur
) in the tapestry business in Brussels as well as a master in the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke by 1517. Early on, he rose to prominence as a painter after executing a series of court portraits, and he came to the attention of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, who hired him as her official court painter in 1518. At Margaret’s death, he continued working for her successor, Mary of Hungary. Van Orley died in 1541.
Van Orley is known for his fine portraits of members of the royal household and their courtiers and many small and medium-sized paintings of the Virgin and Child. He also produced large altarpieces for a variety of patrons such as the corporation of joiners and coopers (Brussels Joiners’ and Coopers’ Altarpiece [Scenes from the Legends of Saints Thomas and Matthias]
, ca. 1515–20, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels), and the almoners of Antwerp Cathedral (Last Judgment
, ca. 1525, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp). Perhaps his greatest masterpiece is the Job and Lazarus Polyptych
, signed and dated 1521 (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels), that originally hung in Margaret of Austria’s Mechelen palace. Around 1525, Van Orley appears to have become less directly involved with paintings, relegating this production to workshop assistants, while he devoted himself more and more to tapestry designs for major patrons. His greatest achievements as tapestry designer are the Hunts of Maximilian
and the Battle of Pavia
series (housed today in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, and Museo di Capodimonte, Naples). Here his successful integration of Netherlandish and Italian style garnered international praise. Van Orley was less innovative as a designer of stained glass, but here he also catered to the court. His best-known and most clearly documented examples are the windows in the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, Brussels, which feature members of the Habsburg royal family at worship.The Painting
: This touching embrace between the Virgin and Child takes place in a majestic setting of verdant garden with elaborate Gothic fountain, near a Renaissance palace. Splendidly attired in a fur-lined blue gown and red, gold-trimmed cloak, Mary sits on a red pillow on the ground—her right foot resting on another red pillow—as the Virgin of Humility. Her flowing hair, beneath a white mantle, signals her virginity. Two angels sing in polyphony from a choir book of mensural notation, while in the heavens above, additional angels echo their voices of praise from a shared banderole.
The particular motif of the Virgin and Child is derived from popular Italo-Byzantine icons (Silver 1998, p. 81). The Cambrai Madonna (Notre Dame de Grâce)
(see fig. 1 above), brought from Rome to Cambrai in 1440 by Canon Fursy de Bruille, and believed to have been painted by Saint Luke himself, initiated the wide dissemination of a compositional type known as the Eleousa, or Virgin of Tenderness. The heightened intimacy of the embrace of Mother and Child, poised here for a kiss (as in the Dieric Bouts’s Virgin and Child
), conflates the Glykophilousa, or tenderly kissing one, with the Eleousa type.
This Virgin and Child type became closely associated with the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) text in the Old Testament. Rupert of Deutz (1070–1129) was the first to give the Song of Songs a fundamentally Marian interpretation, concerning the love union between God and humankind in the Incarnation of Christ through the Virgin Mary. Thereafter, Saint Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux and a medieval theologian (1090–1153), elucidated the Song of Songs (especially 4:12 and 4:15) in his eighty-six sermons (1135–1153) as an allegory in which the Virgin was identified with the bride and Jesus with the heavenly bridegroom. In modern discussions, Leo Steinberg (1996, p. 110) reiterated the Song of Songs interpretation, calling attention to the Child’s chin-chuck of the Virgin, as here, denoting a long-standing convention of “Mary’s son as the Heavenly Bridegroom who, having chosen her for his mother, was choosing her for his eternal consort in heaven.” Steinberg also emphasized the Child’s pose in which his genitals are revealed, emphasizing the Son of God made man and the miracle of the Incarnation.
In addition to emphasizing the relationship of the Virgin and Christ Child, the surviving medieval texts on the Song of Songs also consider the garden setting. Even before Saint Bernard, theologians had discussed the image of the “inner garden of virtue” planted in the soul by God to lead man to salvation. Richard of St. Victor (d. 1173) adapted this to the enclosed garden (hortus conclusus
) by which it is equated with the soul of humankind where “the plants of virtue grow and where the soul can ‘taste’ the virtues and can gain a foretaste of the divine bliss of the afterlife.” As certain texts such as This is a new spiritual orchard
(Dit is een niewe suverlike geestelike boemgaert) of 1508 make clear, this garden must be planted and cared for. The directive includes digging up the “evil roots” of sins and “roots of the nettles of greed and impurity,” as well as planting first the violet of humility, the flower of virtue. Furthermore, there should also be a fountain in the garden containing water to spray the plants.
The various garden allegories, mostly written about 1450–1550, indicate assorted plants that should appear in this garden of the soul, all of them referring specifically to Jesus or the Virgin Mary. Although no text has surfaced that specifically relates to The Met’s painting, it is clear that the precise placement of certain plants in the painting is intentional. Anchoring the composition at the left is the fountain that is identified in exegetical texts with Christ, the “noble well of the blessed passion of Christ,” with Mary, “the well of charity,” or with the “holy trinity [which] flows in our garden.” Nearby in the garden and identified by the key found in fig. 2 above are: flowering columbine (1, the plant of the Holy Spirit and of constancy), common plantain (2, called the “way bread” of pilgrims seeking the path to salvation), wild strawberry (3, expressing the virtues of righteousness and good works), sweet violet (4, humility), and non-flowering columbine (5, the Holy Spirit and constancy). It is notable that the two plants below at the far right and behind the Virgin, are the plants that carry negative meaning. The 1508 text mentioned above instructs that the soul must dig up the “evil roots” of sin and the “roots of the nettles of greed and impurity” (6, at the lower right) and plant the garden with the violet of humility (4), which is directly below the Virgin. Finally, at the upper right is common wormwood (7), indicating the bitterness of Christ’s sacrifice, which is offset by the peacocks above, who represent everlasting life.
The function of this painting then is to serve as an aid in meditation for the viewer whose soul aspires through the purification of sins and the accumulation of virtues to ascend to union with God, greeted by the angels shown in the heavens above. Contemplation of the various virtues presented in this garden of the soul serves this goal. A further clue to how this painting would have functioned for devotional practice is found in the words embroidered in gold on the border of the Virgin’s red cloak, closest to the viewer’s eye. The partially legible inscription reads: MARIA MATER GRASIA[E] MA[TER] (Mary, Mother of Grace, Mother…). These are the initial words of a hymn recited at vespers and lauds in the Office of the Virgin and the Commendation of the Soul. The full passage, certainly known to the viewer of the painting, would have read, “Mary, Mother of Grace, Mother of Mercy, protect me from the enemy, and at the hour of my death receive me.”The Attribution and Date
: The monogram of Albrecht Dürer (AD) and date of 1505, found at the lower left of The Met’s panel, are later false additions. Any early consideration of an attribution to Dürer was abandoned after Max J. Friedländer (1909) correctly linked the picture with Bernard van Orley’s early works, especially with the Brussels Joiners’ and Coopers’ Altarpiece (Scenes from the Legends of Saints Thomas and Matthias)
(ca. 1515–20, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels). Van Orley signed this altarpiece with his monogram, family coat of arms, and full signature, providing an undisputed anchor for attribution of his early works. Equally secure are the wings of the Saint Martin Altarpiece
of about 1515, showing Van Orley's coat of arms. Stylistically linked to this and commissioned by the same man, Jacques de Coene, are the wings of the Saint John the Baptist Altarpiece
, of which The Met owns The Birth and Naming of Saint John the Baptist
); The Martyrdom of Saint John
is in a private collection, a promised gift to The Met. These early works all share certain characteristics with The Met’s Virgin and Child
: round, smoothly blended facial types with rather neutral expressions, a preference for primary colors interjected with couleur-changeant effects of shimmering fabrics, and the arrangement of the figures in an exterior setting before or adjacent to architecture that combines Gothic and Renaissance ornamentation. The brush underdrawing found in this work (figs. 4–5), with its summary indication of facial features—rough circles for eyes and simple arcs for noses and mouths—and its extensive parallel hatching for the modeling of draperies and the system of lighting is similar to that found in the Saint John the Baptist Altarpiece
(see Technical Notes and compare with 2001.216.3). The slightly more sophisticated handling and execution in paint of figures and heads in The Met’s Virgin and Child
in relationship to the Saint John the Baptist Altarpiece
, and the less nuanced modeling of structurally flatter heads in the Virgin and Child
than is found in the Joiners’ and Coopers’ Altarpiece
suggests a date between the two, perhaps about 1518. The Met’s Virgin and Child
shows close similarities to the latter in its summary description of the background landscape features—some of them painted directly without the benefit of underdrawing—and an identical manner of painting trees and shrubberies with flat disclike applications of lighter and darker green over a uniform greenish base tone. The somewhat less adept painted description of architectural forms in The Met’s Virgin and Child
than is found in the Joiners’ and Coopers’ Altarpiece
, even though neither consistently uses a one-point perspective scheme for the buildings, also indicates its earlier date.
While it is not possible to determine the circumstances of the commission of this painting, the lavish attire of the Virgin, the accompanying angels singing from a precious gauffered-edged choir book, and the setting of lush garden, decorative Gothic fountain, and Renaissance palace suggest a courtly milieu. In this regard, it is interesting to note that in 1518, around the time when this painting was produced, Van Orley was appointed court painter to Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, who resided in the Palais de Savoie in Mechelen. A painting of this description does not appear in the inventories of Margaret’s collections, but it is certainly the type of presentation that would have pleased both her and the courtiers Van Orley was hoping to attract for commissions. Moreover, its meaning and emphasis on virtuous behavior and on the mystical relationship between the human soul and God were matters that preoccupied Margaret, as is evident from the religious books in her library.
Maryan W. Ainsworth 2018
 See Maryan W.Ainsworth, “‘À la façon grèce’: The Encounter of Northern Renaissance Artists with Byzantine Icons,” in Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261–1557)
, ed. Helen Evans, exh. cat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Haven, 2004, pp. 544–93, esp. 582–84, 578–79.
 This discussion is indebted to and strongly influenced by the research of Reindert L.Falkenburg presented in The Fruit of Devotion: Mysticism and the Imagery of Love in Flemish Paintings of the Virgin and Child, 1450–1550
, trans. Sammy Herman, Amsterdam, 1994, pp. 16–55; see also John Decker, “‘Planting Seeds of Righteousness,’ Taming the Wilderness of the Soul: Geertgen tot Sint Jans’s St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness,” in Image and Imagination of the Religious Self in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe
, eds. Reindert Falkenburg, Walter S. Melion, and Todd M. Richardson, Turnhout, 2007, pp. 307–27.
 Falkenburg 1994, p. 19.
 Falkenburg 1994, p. 20.
 Falkenburg 1994, p. 27.
 Falkenburg 1994, p. 28.
 For comparisons of the underdrawing and painting technique details found in the Joiners’ and Coopers’ Altarpiece
, see Alexandre Galand, The Flemish Primitives VI: the Bernard van Orley Group, Catalogue of Early Netherlandish Painting in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
, Brussels, 2013, pp. 146–71, esp. 156–62.
 The palace architecture in The Met's painting does not closely resemble the details of Margaret’s Palais de Savoie in Mechelen (1517–26), which was in early stages of construction by Anthonis II and Rombout II Keldermans at the time The Met's painting was produced.
 See Dagmar Eichberger, Leben mit Kunst, Wirken durch Kunst, Sammelwesen und Hofkunst unter Margarete von Ősterreich, Regentin der Niederlande
, Turnhout, 2002, pp. 229–30; and Dagmar Eichberger, ed., Women of Distinction: Margaret of York / Margaret of Austria
, exh. cat. Mechelen, 2005, pp. 210–19, 231–39.