The Virgin among the Virgins

Gérard David

(1450 - 1523) | D.803.4.

Date : Circa 1509 | Medium : Oil on wood

Trained in Haarlem, where Gérard de Saint-Jean worked, before being welcomed to Bruges, Gérard David became one of the city’s finest painters, perpetuating the tradition of Hans Memling, who died in 1494. After becoming a Free Master of the Guild of Painters in 1484, he married Cornelia Cnoop, the daughter of the senior-most member of the goldsmiths’ guild in 1496. The altarpiece of the Virgo inter Virgines was donated in 1509 to the convent of the Carmelites of Sion in Bruges.

Mary, enthroned between two musical angels, holds the Baby Jesus, who is picking grapes off a bunch – a symbol of the Eucharist. She is receiving the homage of a gathering of martyrs with a child-like charm, recognisable by their attributes, each depicted in the manner of precious ornaments. From left to right : Dorothy with her basket of roses (the lawyer Theophilus had promised to convert to Christianity if she sent him roses and apples from the Garden of Christ), Catherine of Alexandria with a crown adorned with the Catherine Wheel (which miraculously broke instead of killing her), Agnes, with a lamb at her feet (the saint was killed aged 14 because she refused to marry a pagan), behind her, an anonymous woman, then Fausta with a saw (the instrument of her martyrdom), Apollonia with a set of tongs (which were used to pull out her teeth), Godelina with a scarf (which her husband used to have her strangled), Cecilia beside an organ (she sang praises to the Lord until her dying breath), Barbara, whose headdress is adorned with a tower (her father had her locked away there) and Lucy holding her eyes (which some maintain were gouged out while others assert that she gouged them out herself). The man, in the upper left corner is the painter Gérard David himself, and the woman on the right in the white cornet is most probably his wife, Cornelia.

The saints stand out against a neutral background with a visual force reminiscent of a bas-relief, but which is animated by the faces and the beauty of the materials. In this dense ensemble, the unusually accentuated upright stance of the Virgin, in its almost statuesque solidity, seems to echo the Madonna of Bruges of Michelangelo, who arrived in the city in 1506.