Martin Schongauer, Madonna of the Rose Bower

Schongauer paints an intimate scene of Mary and the Christ child surrounded by symbolic details—roses, strawberries, and goldfinches.

Martin Schongauer, Madonna of the Rose Bower, 1473, tempera on panel, 200 x 115 cm (Saint-Martin, Colmar, France). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the Church of Saint Martin in Colmar, looking at a beautiful altarpiece by Martin Schongauer. The title is the “Madonna of the Rose Bower.”

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:14] Anybody looking at this painting would have recognized that the style that Schongauer is using is a historical one. He’s looking back to the Netherlandish masters, artists like Rogier van der Weyden.

Dr. Harris: [0:26] To me it looks back to the German artist Stephan Lochner, or back a little bit further to Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin. The very detailed treatment of the foliage and the plants and the flowers just below the hem of the Virgin Mary’s fabulous red garment.

[0:45] We see images of the Virgin and Child with this intimacy also in the works of Robert Campin, but they’re usually in a more domestic setting. Here we have the setting of the rose bower, which Stephan Lochner also gave us decades earlier, and I start wondering if the red of that cloak echoed in the red of the roses is meant to remind us of the blood that Christ will shed.

Dr. Zucker: [1:09] We’re standing in this church on Good Friday, that is, the day that Christ is crucified. It’s an especially poignant reminder that for all of Mary’s sweetness, for all the beauty and intimacy that’s rendered in a scene like this, there’s also Mary’s foreknowledge of Christ’s sacrifice, of his torture, of his death. I think the red is echoing that, but so is a very small detail in this painting, the goldfinch.

Dr. Harris: [1:34] Goldfinches symbolize the Passion of Christ, that is, Christ’s suffering. So this is a devotional image. There’s not a story that’s being told here, but nevertheless, a kind of story emerges of Christ’s life, of his sacrifice, of Mary’s life and her sacrifice, and Mary as the queen of heaven, crowned by angels.

Dr. Zucker: [1:57] Look at that elaborate crown. The amount of detail in this painting is extraordinary. Look at the strawberries that are just at the Virgin Mary’s feet, and we should mention that this painting has been cut down in order to fit in this elaborate frame, which was produced later.

Dr. Harris: [2:12] We get a sense of what the painting originally looked like by a copy of it that’s now in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where we see more plants and foliage around Mary and above the angels who are crowning her; we see God the Father and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. So, right down the center of the painting had the Holy Trinity.

Dr. Zucker: [2:32] One of the other historicizing details in this painting is fact that Schongauer has employed a gold background instead of a landscape that employs atmospheric perspective to create a real sense of naturalism. She’s clearly in a heavenly space. this is a Madonna of Humility, that is, a Madonna who sits directly on the ground.

Dr. Harris: [2:52] So we have her humility, but we also have a symbol of her virginity, that Mary conceived Christ while remaining a virgin, and that’s the rose garden. She’s enclosed within this hortus conclusus, the closed garden, which was a metaphor that was used to describe Mary.

Dr. Zucker: [3:09] One of my favorite details is the way that Christ embraces the Virgin Mary. His right arm curls around her neck. Now Christ looks off to our right, the Virgin looks in the opposite direction, and while there is a real sense of intimacy as she holds him and he holds her, their attentions are going in opposite directions.

Dr. Harris: [3:28] And it makes me think about that idea of Mary’s awareness of Christ’s future suffering, that she turns away, perhaps in sadness, aware of that future, and he turns away from her, that their futures must diverge.

[3:43] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Martin Schongauer, Madonna of the Rose Bower," in Smarthistory, August 16, 2023, accessed April 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/martin-schongauer-madonna-of-the-rose-bower/.