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Virgin and Child in a Landscape

Tempera paint, mixed with egg yolk, does not allow smooth blending of colors because the paint dries too quickly.
Segna di Buonaventura, Italian, Madonna and Child (detail), around 1310

The buildings are typical of a 15th century Netherlandish town.

The blue iris, or sword lily, refers to Mary’s sorrow.

key idea
Artists in northern Europe perfected painting techniques that captured the look of the natural world.

About a century before this picture was painted, artists working in the Netherlands (which then included part of Belgium) perfected the technique of oil painting. They mixed their paints with linseed oil instead of traditional egg yolk. Because oil dries more slowly than egg yolk, painters could blend their colors to produce more lifelike effects.

Netherlandish artists put many details from nature and their own surroundings into their paintings. In this picture, for example, the artist included buildings made of brick, stone, and half-timbered plaster. You can see stone walls and picket fences and a fence made of woven branches. The garden is filled with plants that grow in the region.

Many of these details also had religious meanings that most people of the time understood. The blue iris, or sword lily, symbolized the sorrow that pierced Mary’s heart when her son died. Blue violets, which grow close to the ground, stood for Mary’s humility. The peacock on the gate symbolized immortality, because people thought its body did not decay. In the woods beyond the gate, the tall tree stumps refer to the wooden cross on which Christ was crucified.

The blue violet, which grows low to the ground, symbolizes Mary’s humility.
January 2005