As the Virgin in this painting (in particular her moon-shaped face and delicate facial features) is related stylistically to the Virgin figures found in paintings in the Quinten Massys group, the artist has been located in Antwerp, about 1520.The Painting:
This painting, traditionally called in Latin a Maria lactans
, represents the Virgin breastfeeding the Child. It may have derived in part from the popular type of Robert Campin’s Virgin and Child in an Apse
(a version of which is 05.39.2
). The extensive copying of this image likely indicates that the prototype was believed to have miraculous healing powers. One of the inscriptions in this painting frames the figures, beginning at the lower left, proceeding up and across the top, and then down the right side of the image. It is the first stanza of an anthem that was part of a prayer recited at Compline, the last of the Hours of the Virgin, which is included in breviaries and Books of Hours (see Inscriptions). It refers to the radix sancta
, the Root of Jesse, which is part of the earthly genealogy of Christ, and thereby relates to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This doctrine holds that the Virgin Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin. The second inscription, at the base of the image, is the response found in the Hours of the Virgin after the second lesson at Matins (see Inscriptions) and also relates to the Immaculate Conception.
The Virgin is shown behind a window understood as the window to heaven, or the Fenestra Coeli
, a common accolade for the Immaculate Virgin. Around the Virgin is an aureole of flames, related to her role as the Virgin of the Sun, again imagery connected with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This doctrine gained in popularity throughout Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It was officially accepted in the fifteenth century when Pope Sixtus IV introduced offices for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1476 and 1480, and guaranteed indulgences to those who celebrated the office in bulls of 1476 and 1477. The doctrine was notably popular with the royal family of the Habsburgs, particularly with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who fostered its spread in Spain (Ainsworth 1998). It is quite possible that the inscriptions on this painting were prayers said by members of religious orders devoted to the Immaculate Conception (Martens 1986). The order that was founded in 1489 in Spain required nuns to recite the office of the Immaculate Conception every day. The recitation of such prayers may have resulted in guaranteed indulgences, contributing to the increased popularity of this type of image.
According to Lionel Cust, Max Friedländer suggested that relatively inexpensive paintings on linen, based on an image believed to hold miraculous powers, might have been sold to pilgrims as souvenirs at holy sites. Such images could be mass-produced and made available for a reasonable price based on their comparative simplicity and small size. In his consideration of the Royal Collection version, Cust offered another explanation: that the multiple copies may be due to a confraternity annually commissioning an image on a particular feast day, as was done by the confraternity of Notre Dame du Puy d’Amiens on the feast of the Purification.The Attribution and Date:
This painting is a fine example of the uncommon technique of tempera on linen, known by the German term Tüchlein
. The multiple versions of the composition appear to have been produced in the same workshop, but by different hands (Wolfthal 1989). Friedländer thought the master of the workshop was German (Eisler 1989). However, the face of the Virgin and the figure of Christ in The Met painting bear a resemblance to similar figures painted by Quinten Massys. Ludwig Baldass believed that the many versions were the product of a south Netherlandish workshop, most likely in Antwerp in the circle of Massys at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Some of the versions are or were attributed to the Master of the Louvre Madonna, so-called after a copy on linen in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. The Met’s painting, with the Child’s face turned toward his Mother and grasping her breast with his left hand, is closest to the example in the Thyssen-Borenemisza Collection, Lugano, and others that have appeared on the market (Eisler 1989). The fragility of paintings on linen may have caused the disappearance of many additional copies.
Maryan W. Ainsworth 2012; updated by Ainsworth 2020
 Lionel Cust, "Notes on Pictures in the Royal Collections," Burlington Magazine
11 (1907), pp. 231–32.
 Ludwig Baldass in Mélanges Hulin de Loo
, Brussels, 1931, pp. 24–32.
 Another replica attributed to the Master of the Louvre Madonna, painted on linen, was sold at Christie’s, London, November 2, 2001. It lacks the inscription and window frame, and the Child’s head turns more fully to face the viewer.