For a Biography of the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend, see the Catalogue Entry for Saint Paul with a Donor; Christ Appearing to His Mother
This exceptionally well-preserved painting, complete with its original frame, represents a particularly beloved theme of early Netherlandish painting. The motif of the Virgin breast-feeding the Christ Child derives from Byzantine icons, known as the Galaktotrophousa
(or in Latin, the Virgo lactans
). Medieval devotional literature embraced the theme and developed its meaning by connecting it with the Incarnation, as did Saint John Chrysostom, or with Christ’s Passion, as explained by Saint Clement of Alexandria. Later on, female mystics, among them Mechteld of Magdeburg and Hildegard of Bingen, as well as the Dominicans and Cistercians, focused on the miracle of lactation, leading to the great popularity of the cult of the Virgin’s milk throughout late medieval Europe. As the Virgin’s milk was associated with healing and with her powers of intercession for humankind, relics associated with this cult attracted pilgrims from far and wide to churches in major cities. Sint-Donaaskerk (Saint Donatian’s church) in Bruges, for example, was famous for its relics of the Virgin’s hair and her milk, thus motivating a demand for multiple images of the nursing Virgin, which could be fashioned to suit the patron and his or her circumstances of location and devotional practice (see below).
The specific motif of the Virgin and Child in The Met’s painting is adapted from Rogier van der Weyden’s Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; see fig. 1 above), dating around 1435–40. Exact copies of the entire painting, from about 1484 into the sixteenth century, are in museums in Munich (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek), Saint Petersburg (Hermitage), Bruges (Groeningemuseum), and elsewhere. As in the case of The Met’s painting, an even larger number of panels excerpted the motif of the Virgin and Child to focus specifically on the Virgo lactans
theme (De Vos 1971). The half-length version of Rogier’s Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin
shows slight alterations in the positions of the head and left leg of the Christ Child, the headdress, hairline, and position of the Virgin’s fingers, the cloth above her exposed breast, and the cloth under the Christ Child (Stroo and Syfer-d’Olne 1996, p. 169). This variant model may have been created by Rogier himself or by a close follower.
The half-length paintings could be tailor-made for each client with the addition of identifying family coats of arms, donor portraits in pendant panels, and varied settings including background landscape scenes. For example, in the Diptych of the Virgin and Child with Joos van der Burch and Saint Simon of Jerusalem
(ca. 1480 and ca. 1493; Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, figs. 2a, 2b) the patron is identified by his coat of arms in the windows at the back of the room and by his device that swirls on a banderole above his hands (Van der Burch was councilor to Maximilian I and Philip the Handsome, and receiver of Veurne-Ambacht, the shire of Furnes). These distinguishing features and the coordination of the setting in the two panels indicate that the Virgin and Child have miraculously appeared in the donor’s residence. Another version shows in a background stained-glass window the coat of arms and the device of Martin Reynhout and his first wife, Barbe van Rockaringen (before 1494; Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, fig. 3; Stroo and Sufer-d’Olne 1996, no. 11, pp. 164–73). The Met painting is distinguished from these examples by its setting of a trompe-l’oeil golden niche for the Virgin and Child. Instead of any reference to donor figures or their contemporary world, this painting harks back to the eternal status of Byzantine icons. Installed in a chapel illuminated only by candlelight, the shimmering golden background would have enhanced the aura of the Virgin and Child as if they had suddenly materialized in the viewer’s environment. Such an image may have been intended to inspire devotion to a relic of the Virgin’s milk, perhaps the one in the Church of Saint Donatian in Bruges, the city where this painting was likely produced (see below). The x-radiograph of the painting shows original hinge holes that have been filled on the upper and lower edges of the left and right sides of the frame (see Technical Notes). This indicates that The Met’s painting originally had wings, decorated perhaps with prayers, images of angels, or donor figures or their coats of arms.The Attribution and Date:
As mentioned above, at least two other panels show the motif of the Virgin and Child that is adopted by The Met’s painting. These are in the collections of the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, and the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts (figs. 2a, 2b, 3), each attributed to a Follower of Rogier van der Weyden. These paintings are nearly identical in size, and the motif of the Virgin and Child is equivalent. A tracing made of the motif of the Virgin and Child in The Met’s painting was placed over the same motif in the Brussels and the Cambridge examples. In each case, the contours of the figures are closely aligned, indicating that they may have derived from the same workshop pattern. All three show a minimal underdrawing confined to the contours of the forms (for The Met’s painting, see the Technical Notes; fig. 4). The Brussels and Cambridge paintings are similar to each other in their painting technique. Friedländer (1928) noted that The Met’s painting follows Rogier so closely that the artist’s personal style can hardly be recognized. Although The Met’s example clearly attempts to approximate the style of the Rogerian model, it appears different in technique, particularly in the modeling of the “smooth, almost marble-like flesh” (see Technical Notes).
In addition, The Met’s painting shows stylistic traits of the group of Virgin and Child paintings that were attributed by Friedländer to the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend: the wide part in the Virgin’s hair, the widow’s-peak hairline, the narrow crescent-shaped ears, and the schematic waves of hair on each side of the face (Friedländer 1928, VI, pp. 61-62; 1971, VIa, p. 39). Moreover, the head of the Christ Child is far less Rogerian and more like examples in the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend group. Virgin and Child paintings in the Fogg Art Museum (Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge), Worcester Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum, and Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection (Madrid) provide close parallels (figs. 5–8). The Los Angeles County Museum example (fig. 7) also shows a curved-back golden throne with the same black parallel and cross-hatched modeling of the golden trompe-l’oeil throne arcade as that found in the niche behind The Met’s Virgin and Child
. A further connection of The Met painting with several in the Saint Ursula Master group is evident in the x-radiographs showing the build-up of lead white used to model the features of the face of the Virgin. The Met painting reveals the concentration of lead white highlights specifically placed at the peak of the forehead, a broad stroke just above the proper right eye, diagonal strokes beneath the eyes, and a spot at the tip of the nose (fig. 9). In general, this is similar to the treatment found in the Virgin heads of the paintings in the Fogg Art Museum, Los Angeles Art Museum, and elsewhere (figs. 10, 11). However, the handling in paint is different in all three, and a closer technical examination of the Virgin and Child paintings in the group attributed to the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend is necessary to determine whether these works share more in common than their stylistic traits.
As noted above, the Cambridge and Brussels Virgin and Child paintings after Rogier van der Weyden (figs. 2a, 2b, 3) indicate Bruges patrons, identified by their coats of arms, and can be dated about 1480, about 1493, and before 1494, respectively. The Master of the Saint Ursula Legend Virgin and Child paintings discussed here are linked with perhaps one or more Bruges workshops active from about 1470–90. Finally, a full-page image of the Rogerian Virgin and Child across from Joanna of Castile at Prayer is featured in the Hours of Joanna of Castile (fol. 287v-288, British Library, London, MS. 18852), attributed to the Master of the David Scenes in the Grimany Breviary, also produced in Bruges or Ghent between 1496 and 1506. It is most plausible that The Met’s painting was produced in Bruges and dates about 1480–90.
Maryan W. Ainsworth 2022
 For a discussion of the iconography of the Virgo lactans type, see Stroo and Syfer-d’Olne 1996, pp. 81–82. See also Ainsworth 2004, pp. 554–55, 569–73, nos. 340–41.
 D. Apostolos-Cappadona, “Picturing Devotion: Rogier’s Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin” in Carol Purtle, ed., The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Rogier van de Weyden, Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, Selected Essays in Context
, Turnhout, 1997, pp. 5–14.
 P. V. Bétérous, “À propos d’une des legends mariales les plus répandues: Le ‘lait de la Vierge’,” Bulletin de l’Association Guillaume Budé
4, 1975, pp. 401–11. See C. Walker Bynam, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women
, Berkeley, 1987, pp. 261–76; M. Warner, Alone of all her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary
, New York, 1983, pp. 192–205; and Apostolos-Cappadona 1997, pp. 5–14.
 A. Sanderus, Flandria illustrate: Sive descriptio comitatus istius
, 2 vols., Cologne, 1641–44, vol. 2, pp. 78ff, listed these relics among those at Saint Donatian. See also J. Toussaert, Le sentiment religieux en flandre à la fin du Moyen Âge
, Paris, 1963, p. 292.
 John Oliver Hand, Catherine A. Metzger, Ron Spronk, eds., Prayers and Portraits, Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych
, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, and Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, New Haven, 2006, pp. 264–65, no. 40.
 Three other closely associated panels possibly made from the same cartoon are in Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Kassel; Museo Nacional de Escultura, Valladolid; J. G. Nyssen-Wiegand Collection, Barcelona. See Stroo and Syfer-d’Olne 1996, pp. 168–69.
 The comparison of the tracing of The Met's painting over the Brussels painting was made by Pascale Sufer-d’Olne (correspondence of November 17, 1997, in the European Paintings Curatorial files and Paintings Conservation files). The comparison of the tracing of the New York painting over the x-radiograph of the Cambridge example (as the painting was not easily accessible in a glass vitrine) was made by Ron Spronk (correspondence of November 7, 1997, in the European Paintings Curatorial files and Paintings Conservation files).
 Dijkstra (1990, p. 125) noted that the Brussels and Cambridge paintings were made with the aid of the same cartoon, and a transfer process from the cartoon to the grounded panel. However, Hand, Metzger, and Spronk 2006, p. 302) describe the Cambridge example as having a fluid and confident underdrawing, with no hatching, but they do not mention the use of a cartoon.
 See also the Saint Ursula Master Virgin and Child
in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels in Sufer-d’Olne et al. 2006, p. 327, fig. 235.
 SMK, p. 411–12.
 Peter Klein’s dendrochronology analysis indicated an earliest possible creation date of 1451, with a more plausible date of 1457 onwards (see Technical Notes).