Stefan Lochner, Madonna of the Rose Bower

The overriding quality of Lochner’s Madonna of the Rose Bower is an intense sweetness.

Stefan Lochner, Madonna of the Rose Bower, c. 1440–42, oil on oak panel, 50.5 x 40 cm (Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, and we’re looking at a painting by the most important artist in Cologne in the 15th century, and that’s Stefan Lochner. We’re in front of the painting called “Madonna and Child in a Rose Bower.”

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:21] The detail is so fine. The colors are so brilliant, but the overriding quality of the painting is intense sweetness. A sweetness that you see not only because they’re in a garden, but because of the facial features of the Virgin Mary, of the Christ Child, and especially of these adorable angels.

Dr. Harris: [0:42] It’s interesting, because the faces have a softness that adds to that sweetness. That softness is contrasted with that intense detail and specificity in the roses and the vines around Mary, but also in the specificity of that greenery that Mary sits on.

Dr. Zucker: [1:01] Look at that Christ Child. He’s adorable. He holds a piece of fruit that has been handed to him by an angel. He’s got this large halo, but the halo is oriented a little bit above his head, so it almost looks like a bonnet.

[1:14] There is intricate tooling even within the halo, and of course also within the Virgin’s. And then look at the Virgin’s crown, it’s studded with pearls and flowers.

Dr. Harris: [1:23] The angels on either side of Mary are picking roses. Their hands are clasped in prayer. They’re handing fruit to Christ. And those angels who pull back this curtain that helps to frame Mary and Christ.

[1:38] If we look down the center, we see God the Father in heaven, also wearing a crown. His hands are open as he looks downward and seems to release a dove, who moves down toward Christ and Mary. We have God the Father, the Christ Child, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.

Dr. Zucker: [1:56] The Virgin Mary and Christ are being celebrated by four angels in the foreground, each holding an instrument. You can see a large lute, a small lute, a harp, and a hand organ. They are not simply holding instruments, but playing them. Their hands are active.

Dr. Harris: [2:13] And so this evocation of paradise that’s multi-sensory, that we see, that we hear, that we can almost smell; and the trellis gives us a little bit of a sense of depth, those diagonal lines that move back into space, but the overall effect is somewhat flat and decorative.

Dr. Zucker: [2:31] I love the contrast between the geometry of the trellis and the organic nature of the figures. Christ is looking off to his left, Mary also, but more downward. I want to know what Christ is looking towards. Was there another panel beside this? What was the context that this painting was meant for?

Dr. Harris: [2:50] It’s small, and so that suggests that it was for private devotion, but its richness speaks to a wealth of whoever commissioned this painting. I’m looking at, for example, the woven gold fabric in the background that is so sumptuous.

Dr. Zucker: [3:09] The richness of this panel is a reminder that Cologne was one of the wealthiest cities in Europe, and so it’s no surprise to see a painting that is emphasizing the sumptuous, that’s emphasizing material wealth.

[3:22] Recent research has uncovered the fact that this was part of a diptych, that is, this was the left panel of a two-paneled painting. That makes sense because Christ is looking to his left. He would be looking directly at the kneeling donor.

Dr. Harris: [3:36] So here we are in the early years of the 1400s, in what we would call the Northern Renaissance. We know that Lochner was looking at the art of Van Eyck and this interest in capturing small details rendered really perfectly. I’m thinking about that enormous gold brooch that she wears. That kind of specificity is coming right from that Northern tradition.

Dr. Zucker: [4:02] This is a Madonna of Humility, a standard type of representation of the Virgin Mary who’s not on a throne, but is seated directly on the ground. In this case, on a pillow.

Dr. Harris: [4:14] The roses, the lilies, are all symbols of Mary, of her virginity. The roses are also a symbol of Christ. We have this idea of the hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden, that symbolizes Mary’s virginity.

Dr. Zucker: [4:29] But the garden is also an important reminder of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, where man falls.

Dr. Harris: [4:38] And we see Christ holding fruit that reminds us of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. So Adam and Eve, who caused the fall of man, and Mary and Christ, who make possible salvation for all of mankind. And so we’re looking really at the overwhelming beauty of heaven.

[4:56] [music]

This painting at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum

Anne Winston-Allen, “Gardens of Heavenly and Earthly Delight: Medieval Gardens of the Imagination,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, volume 99, number 1 (1998), pp. 83–92.

Julien Chapuis, “Beyond the Christmas Card—Stefan Lochner, the Painter: ‘The Virgin in the Rose Bower,'” Stefan Lochner: Image Making in Fifteenth-Century Cologne (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), pp. 88–94.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Stefan Lochner, Madonna of the Rose Bower," in Smarthistory, September 6, 2023, accessed June 13, 2024,