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Virgin and Child in a Landscape

A woman sits outdoors, a child on her lap. Flowers bloom around them, and a tame peacock perches on the garden gate. The nearby buildings are typical of 15th-century Brabant, now a region of Belgium, where the artist lived. The mother smiles tenderly at her child as they turn the pages of a book. But is this an ordinary family in their garden?

If the woman stood up, she would tower over the landscape in her flowing red robe. The baby’s solemn face suggests wisdom beyond his years. This woman is Mary, and the child in her lap is Jesus Christ. They sit before us, not high on a heavenly throne, but firmly on earth—in your own backyard, if you lived in 15th-century Brabant.

The painting reminded churchgoers that in many ways Mary and Jesus were ordinary people like themselves. Yet the real-world details held religious meanings. The message for the believer: If God is in everything, then perhaps nothing is ordinary.

Master of the Embroidered Foliage, Virgin and Child in a Landscape, about 1500, oil on panel

Images of Mary as a mother appealed to Christians in Europe in the late Middle Ages.
Artists in northern Europe perfected painting techniques that captured the look of the natural world.
The painter’s name is unknown, but a comparison of similar pictures might tell something about him.

Hidden Symbols: Ordinary plants and animals had symbolic meaning for 15th-century Europeans. The violet, for example, stood for humility because it grows close to the ground. (See Key Idea 2.) Think of several common plants and animals in your world. Invent symbolic meanings for them based on their qualities. Then combine them to create a picture with hidden meaning. Can someone else decode your picture?  

Europe in the Middle Ages: The painter shows us what a village looked like in the region in which he lived. What might life have been like there? Use the library to find out more about life in 15th-century Netherlands. Draw a new picture based on the background scene of this one to show what you have learned, and write a paragraph to explain what is happening in your picture.  

A Medieval Mystery: Compare four pictures thought to be painted by the Master of the Embroidered Foliage at Examine infrared photographs and other evidence that makes scholars question whether the same person painted all four works. What is your opinion?  

Mothers in Art: Mothers have special importance in cultures around the world. Use the Art Collector function of ArtsConnectEd to compare different images of mothers. Which images seem to show a particular mother and child? Which seem to stand for qualities mothers represent? What do you see that makes you say that? Can one image do both? Choose one to use on a Mother's Day greeting card and write a message to go inside. Click here to start. (Click here to learn more about Art Collector.)  

January 2005