The Virgin in the Sun
The Virgin appears at half-length, her silhouette framed by radiating sunbursts carved into the painting’s ground layer before being gilded and burnished to a polish in order to resemble flames of sunlight. With both arms she holds the Christ Child high at her breast, his right hand playing with his mother’s hair while his left delicately holds a thornless red rose (symbolic of the Virgin’s purity). The composition, with its two figures’ tender embrace, is based closely on a design popularised by the Brussels-based painter Rogier van der Weyden, and technical analysis has revealed that our painter must have had close links to Rogier’s workshop drawings, since it reproduces his designs with incredible precision.
The iconography of this unusually large tondo (most round northern European panel paintings surviving from this date are half its size) is known by the Latin term ‘Virgo in Sole’ or Virgin in the Sun. It became a hugely popular image type in the closing decades of the fifteenth century due to its association with Indulgences – reliefs from time spent by the soul in Purgatory following one’s death. By looking at images like the Virgo in Sole, and saying specific prayers before those images, Medieval viewers believed that their own stint in Purgatory would be shortened considerably – often by thousands of years.
Most Virgo in Sole images to have survived from the late Middle Ages are, however, either sculpted images intended for liturgical use in large church buildings, or inexpensive prints of the type that could be mass-produced, circulated widely, and carried about the person. This remarkable survival is one of a tiny handful of panel paintings depicting the Virgo in Sole that are known to have come down to us from the period. As a document of late-Medieval devotional practice and a record of Flemish panel painting in the closing years of the fifteenth century, it could hardly be more significant.
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