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The Holy Family with Music Making Angels, by The Master of Frankfurt


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About the artwork

This picture is the central panel of a triptych altarpiece. The two side panels, now in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, depict two virgin martyrs, St Catherine and St Barbara. We do not know which church the whole altarpiece was intended for. Both the central panel and the wings were in Britain during the early 19th century. The Walker's panel was a gift to the collections by Philip Henry Rathbone in 1895.

The Virgin Mary is represented as a mother breast-feeding the infant Jesus. They are accompanied by St Joseph and four angels playing musical instruments (interestingly all four angels are left-handed). Mary offers a pear to the Christ Child, a symbol of Christ’s love. Joseph, seated on a stone bench behind the Virgin’s throne, holds a rosary and a book in his hands. This characterisation of him as a scholarly and pious man was something that developed from the late 15th century onwards.

In the bottom right-hand corner is a chained monkey holding a pomegranate. This refers to the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden with which the devil had tempted Eve and Adam. It is a symbol of the fall of humanity. It also represents the sinner in chains. Because the monkey is shown chained and confined at the feet of Mary it also indicates Mary's triumph over the devil. The book in the left foreground is meant to be a Bible - the biblical Word that is here becomes flesh in the Christ Child.

The setting for this group of figures is the so-called hortus conclusus; an enclosed or walled garden. The Virgin Mary was often depicted by artists in this setting, accompanied by music making angels and other virgin Saints. The garden is symbolic of paradise - the perfect landscape in which mankind had once lived and the appropriate setting for Christ's mother. The sweet smelling garden contrasts with its opposite - the foul stench of death - often associated with the Devil. There are several flowers that have a special meaning connected with the Virgin Mary; the most obvious is the lily - a sign of purity - which can be seen next to the foreground book. It was quite usual to describe Mary in terms associated with sweet perfume like myrrh, frankincense, cinnamon and roses. Mary's conquest of sin made her smell divine.

We do not know the name of the artist who painted this picture but whoever he was he painted several other works. Two well-known pictures hang in the art gallery in Frankfurt, from which the name by which we know him is derived. In fact he was almost certainly an artist from Antwerp, Belgium rather than Germany. He seems to have run a large and very active workshop from around 1490 until about 1520. Although we do not know his name there is a portrait of the Master of Frankfurt and his wife in the Royal Museum in Antwerp.

The composition of the Walker's panel is similar to other works painted by other artists, in particular a picture now in a Lisbon museum. During the 15th and early 16th centuries it was quite common for artists to borrow whole compositions as well as details from other artists. It is thought that both the painter of the Lisbon picture and The Master of Frankfurt took their composition from an unidentified earlier picture by another artist – possibly Joos van Cleve. Joos was one of the major Antwerp artists at this time, and his work can also be seen in this room.

The Master of Frankfurt has been tentatively identified as Hendrik van Hueluwe. He was a free Master in Antwerp from 1483 onwards, and a prominent member of the artists' Guild of St Luke during the early 16th century.