Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin

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Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, c. 1435–1440. 137.5 x 110.8cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin is an oil-on-oak panel painting by the early Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden. It depicts Luke the Evangelist, the patron saint of artists, drawing the Virgin Mary as she holds the Child Jesus. van der Weyden likely completed the work between 1435 and 1440 for his patrons, the Guild of Saint Luke in Brussels.[1]

The panel is heavily infused with iconography and symbolic motifs. Mary sits before an enclosed garden, one of the many indications of her purity. The carved figures of Adam and Eve on the arms of the throne emphasise Christ's and Mary's roles in redeeming mankind from original sin. The artist was heavily influenced by Jan van Eyck; the panel closely follows that artist's Madonna of Chancellor Rolin.

Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin was probably one of van der Weyden's first as the City Painter of Brussels following his apprenticeship with Robert Campin,[2] who completed a now lost Saint Luke drawing the Virgin image late in his career. Four versions exist;[3] in Munich, Bruges, Leningrad and Boston.[4] That in Boston is considered the original, but has suffered damage in areas of its surface, and is in relatively poor condition despite cleaning and restoration between 1932-33. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston describes the work as "among the most important northern European paintings in the United States".[5] Many art historians have identified the portrayal of Luke as an idealised self-portrait of van der Weyden.


The Cambrai Madonna, (anonymous), c. 1340. Tempera on cedar panel. Cambrai Cathedral, France

By legend Luke the Evangelist is credited as having painted or drawn the first portrait of the Virgin and Child, and throughout art history painters of icons aspired to follow his model. The imagery was relatively static up to the end of the Byzantine era, a fact driven by the belief that the artsts were following Luke's original artistic creation. During the Early Renaissance the image was more commonly found in Northern than Italian art, perhaps explained by the fact that in the Low countries, Luke was generally appointed parton of painters' guilds.[6] His historical link to the holy family explains the high instance of faithful reproductions of images of this type; the Cambrai Madonna was relocated to France in 1440, and at least 15 high quality copies were in existance four years later.[7]

van der Weyden's interpretation was hugely influential during the mid 15th and early 16th centuries, both in free and faithful adaptions. This is reflective of its quality, and the fact that he presents an ideal image of an artist as a self portrait, legitimising and elevating the trade.[7]



Detail showing Joachim and Anne?

The painting is set within an architectural space with a barrel vault ceiling, inlaid tiled flooring, and stained glass windows. The outer wall, or loggia, sits on a bridge over a river or harbour bay.[8] The figures are framed by three arches, which look out to a detailed background city and landscape. Mary is presented as exuding maternal love, Luke concentrates on his drawing, the Christ child revels with infantile wonderment.

According to art historian Jeffrey Chipps Smith, van der Weyden achieves a smooth transition between the grounds, establishing a "complex spatial space in which he achieved an almost seamless movement from the elaborate architecture of them main room to the garden and parapet of the middle ground to the urban and rural landscape behind".[9] The work is clearly bisected, with Mary to one side, and St Luke to the other. Mary is positioned to the left on a cloth of honour. St Luke kneels before her, seemingly having entered from a small room behind him, which contains his symbol, and ox.[9] Luke is painted with more naturalism than the Virgin. His eyes are more realistically drawn, while Christ's conform to the then idealised form and are simple crescents, while Mary's are formed from curved lines typical of late Gothic ideals of feminine beauty.[10]


Study of the underdrawing shows the artist intended a van Eyckian angel crowning the Virgin, but omitted it from the final painting.[11] He heavily reworked the positioning of the three main figures even towards the end of completion. Mary's head is tilted to the right in the underdrawing, but ends up upright.[12] Christ's body at first faced Saint Luke, but ended up tilted back in the direction of his mother. The mother and child were brought closer together. Saint Luke's head was at first level with the Virgin's; in the final painting it is raised slightly above hers.[13]

Jan van Eyck, Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, c. 1435

van der Weyden shows Luke working on a silverpoint drawing, that is he is engaged in the preparatory stage of a portrait. This allows him to show the artist unencumbered with the paraphernalia of painting, such as an easel, seat or other items which, according to Susie Nash, would "clutter the composition and provide a barrier between saint and Virgin".[14]

Smith describes the panel as an "exposition of the art of painting", and observes than van der Weyden records the essential skills any successful artist should master to claim to be an heir to St Luke.[9] The work has a clear narrative structure and closely follows van Eyck's Madonna of Chancellor Rolin of c. 1435, although the figures are reversed.[15] Van der Weyden's approach is warmer, and emphasises the artist's profession by having Saint Luke draw the Virgin Mary in silverpoint—an exacting medium implying the artist's skill and confidence. According to Smith, van der Weyden is displaying his ability, and that "the viewer is invited to compare the drawing, which will be the model for the ultimate picture, with the "flesh and blood" head of the Virgin".[9]

The drawing of Mary is very similar to a 1464 drawing, also silverpoint, now in the Louvre. Both images have been described as of a type van der Weyden was then preoccupied with in drawing; with "an ongoing refinement and emphasis on [Mary's] youthfulness … [which is] traceable throughout his work".[16]


Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin is among the first known examples of the theme in Renaissance art,[17] along with a similar work (a triptych panel) by Robert Campin. It is thought that van der Weyden included his self-portrait in the depiction of Saint Luke[18]—a device often employed by artists to affirm their vocation and affinity with the patron saint of the arts.

Van der Weyden presents a humanized Virgin and Child, as suggested by the realistic contemporary surroundings, the lack of halos, and the intimate spatial construction. Yet he infuses the panel with extensive religious iconography. A representation of the Fall of Man is carved on the armrest of the Virgin's seat; Adam and Eve symbolize the role of the Virgin and Jesus in the redemption of man.[2] Though she is seated under a damask canopy of estate, Mary does not sit on the bench but rather its step, indicating her humility.[19] Through the anteroom at the very right we see a writing desk, and beneath it a kneeling ox. The animal, one of the apocalyptic beasts from the Book of Revelation represents the Gospels; the open book represents Luke's Gospel.[2] In the rear, the loggia looks into an enclosed garden, a further emblem of the Virgin's chastity.

The architecture in the van der Weyden is less embellished than in the van Eyck. The landscape is less detailed and contains fewer human figures. While van Eyck's landscape is left open, van der Weyden's' is enclosed.[15] As in the van Eyck, two figures lead to the bridge which looks out into the distance. They may not be intended to carry specific identities,[20] but have occasionally been identified as Joachim and Anne, the parents of the Virgin.[21] The background shows a garden, in which plants are set in vertical tiers.[15]


In the early 20th century, art historians believed the original van der Weyden panel lost, the extant versions copies.[21] Infrared reflectography has since revealed the underdrawing in the Boston version contains heavy redrafting and re-working, absent in the other versions, strong evidence the panel is an original.[22]

Historians gradually revised the painting to earlier in the artist's career, from 1450 to the currently accepted 1435–40. Dendrochronological examination of the growth rings in the wood suggest that the timber was felled around 1424. Around the 15th century, wood was typically stored for around 20 years before use in panel painting, giving an earliest date in mid 1430s. Analysis of the Munich version places it in the 1480s, around 20 years after Van der Weyden's death.[23]

Tapestry, after van der Weyden, c 1500. Louvre, Paris


For some time it was unclear which version was the van der Weyden original. Its influence was widespread, and if it was was part of the Guild of Saint Luke's chapel in Brussels, then many near contemporary artists would viewed and copied it. In addition to the Boston version, there are notable copies in Munich (Alte Pinakothek, c. 1483), St. Petersburg (The Hermitage, 1475–1500), and Bruges (Groeningemuseum, variously dated).[2] Fragments and partial copies[11] exist in Brussels, Kassel, Valladolid and Barcelona.[24]

A tapestry version was woven in Brusels c 1500, and is now in the Louvre.[25] It was probably designed after a drawing which shows an inverse of the painting.[26]


Rogier van der Weyden, Head of the Virgin, silverpoint on white prepared paper, 1464. Louvre, Paris

Despite the eminence of the painting and its many copies, little is known of the Boston panel's provenance before the 19th century.[27] It is recorded in 1835 in the collection of Don Infante Sebastián Gabriel Borbón y Braganza, a grandnephew of Charles III of Spain, himself an artist whose inventory notes attributed the work to Lucas van Leyden and suggested an earlier restoration. It underwent a major cleaning and conservation in 1932 and has been subject to restoration at least four times.[21]

The original is in poor condition, having suffered substantial damage[20] to both frame and surface. The painting was donated to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1893 by the Henry Lee Higginsons in lieu of their New York auction purchase of 1889. The museum held an exhibition in 1989 around the work titled "Art in Context: Rogier van der Weyden's Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin".



  1. ^ Gardner and Kleiner, 406
  2. ^ a b c d Ishikawa
  3. ^ Ishikawa, 56
  4. ^ Ishikawa, 57
  5. ^ Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Accessed June 6, 2011.
  6. ^ Smith, 16
  7. ^ a b Harbison, 102
  8. ^ Nash, 157
  9. ^ a b c d Smith, 21
  10. ^ Ishikawa, 54
  11. ^ a b Borchert, 213
  12. ^ Ishikawa, 57
  13. ^ Ishikawa, 53
  14. ^ Nash, 158
  15. ^ a b c Campbell, 21
  16. ^ "Head of the Virgin". Louvre. Retrieved December 05, 2014
  17. ^ Hornik and Parsons, 16–17
  18. ^ Ishikawa, 54
  19. ^ Harbison, 7
  20. ^ a b Campbell, 54
  21. ^ a b c Eisler, Colin Tobias (1961). New England Museums. Brussels: Centre National de Recherches Primitifs. 73–74
  22. ^ See Ishikawa for an explanation of van der Weyden's approach to underdrawing.
  23. ^ Ishikawa, 58
  24. ^ Hand et al., 265
  25. ^ Smith, 19
  26. ^ Delmarcel, Guy. Flemish Tapestry from the 15th to the 18th Century. Lannoo, 1999. 52. ISBN 9-0209-3886-X
  27. ^ Ishikawa—but see the Provenance section of the Boston museum's page for more current information


  • Borchert, Till-Holger. "Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin", in Van Eyck to Dürer. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011. 978-0-500-23883-7
  • Campbell, Lorne. Van der Weyden. London: Chaucer Press, 2004. ISBN 1-904449-24-7
  • Gardner, Helen and Kleiner, Fred S. (2009). Gardner's Art Through the Ages: the Western Perspective, vol. 2. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. ISBN 978-0-495-57364-7.
  • Hand, John Oliver; Metzger, Catherine; Spronk, Ron. Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych. National Gallery of Art (U.S.), Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Belgium), 2006. CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-12155-1
  • Hornik, Heidi; Parsons, Mikeal Carl. Illuminating Luke: The Infancy Narrative in Italian Renaissance Painting. Continuum, 2003. ISBN 5-6338-405-9
  • Harbison, Craig. "The Art of the Northern Renaissance". London: Laurence King Publishing, 1995. ISBN 1-78067-027-3
  • Ishikawa, Chiyo. "Rogier van der Weyden's 'Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin' Reexamined". Journal of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Vol. 2, 1990
  • Nash, Susie. Northern Renaissance art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN 0-19-284269-2
  • Rothstein, Bret. Sight and Spirituality in Early Netherlandish Painting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-521-83278-0
  • Smith, Jeffrey Chipps. The Northern Renaissance (Art and Ideas). London: Phaidon Press, 2004. ISBN 0-7148-3867-5

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