The National Gallery masterpiece in its Sicilian setting

Albrecht Dürer, The Virgin and Child (the Madonna with the Iris), 1494 1The date ‘1508’ on the painting is clearly a forgery, as shown by the analysis carried out by the National Gallery’s team of experts, see P. Ackroyd, S. Foister, M. Spring, R. White and R. Billinge, A Virgin and Child from the Workshop of Albrecht Dürer?, The National Gallery Technical Bulletin 21, 2000, pp. 28–42. t is considered appropriate to bring forward the execution of the panel to Dürer’s first trip to Italy.

Oil on panel, 149.2 x 117.2 cm, London, National Gallery

Mater dulcissima 2The epithet is an adaptation from the Marian antiphon Salve Regina (Marian Antiphons), nel cui diafano incarnato riluce il candore del marmo pario, giovane donna3See Isaiah 7,14, nelle cui chiome dorate risuonano rime e canti d’amore. 4The blond hair of Dürer’s Madonna recalls the description of Laura in the XC sonnet of Petrarch’s Canzoniere (vv.1-2) Erano i capei d’oro a l’aura sparsi – Wikipedia; the ringed locks refer to a passage from the Song of Songs (7, 6) The Holy Bible – Song of Songs – umile sposa5For the iconographic theme of Madonna of Humilty, see Madonna dell’Umiltà – Wikipedia. For a more in-depth examination of Mary’s spousal reality, here underlined by the presence of the veil, see La Vergine Maria, tre volte “sposa” (, in particular, S. L. M. Grignion de Montfort, Trattato della vera devozione alla Santa Vergine Maria, Shalom, Andria, 2014 di un onnipotente, che dall’alto le annuncia un progetto speciale.

Albrecht Dürer tells us about her and her history-making birth in the National Gallery panel, revealing previously unpublished information about his first trip to Italy. The scene takes place in a semi-open space: the painted wooden pillars along the sides delimit a circumscribed environment, a sort of hortus conclusus6See Hortus conclusus – Wikipedia a to which, however, it is not only the Virgin who has access. The thin scaffolding 7The intersecting poles form seven segments, probably an allusion to the cross and Mary’s ‘seven sorrows’. supporting the vine opens up towards the viewer, drawing him into the intimate embrace of the Virgo lactans8For the iconography of the Virgo lactans, see Nursing Madonna – Wikipedia and her extraordinary Child 9Note the pyramidal layout of the figures, typically Leonardo.. However, the diagonals determined by the bricks of the arch (on the left) and the pole (on the right) converge on the head of the Dei genetrix 10For the Marian title of Mother of God, cfr. Theotókos – Wikipedia to show that she is the protagonist. In her face, which is not idealised, we recognise the Teutonic features of Agnes, married to Albrecht in 1494 and present in other of his paintings and engravings. 11See, for example, the portrait  Mein Agnes at the Albertina in Vienna My Agnes, 1494 – Albrecht Durer, the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (Agnes appears in the guise of Mary’s mother) and the Madonna and Child under a Tree from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. For the occasion, she wears a dress with long drapery, like that of the Virgins by Van Eyck (1433), Schongauer (c. 1469) and Memling (c. 1480) 12In the above-mentioned works the same wild lilies with bluish hues appear as in Dürer’s painting. In Van Eyck, the lily is represented on the tapestry behind the Virgin.,  and a draped mantle that acts as a sheet for the Newborn Child and spreads out to cover the garden behind, concealing the seat on which she is seated. The palette that colours the robes is composed of two tons of red – vermilion – a symbol and prefiguration of the Passion for which the child is destined.

The Virgin and Child in a Garden Style of Martin Schongauer

Madonna with the Child Reading – Jan van Eyck

Virgin Enthroned with Child and Angel c. 1480 by Hans Memling | Oil Painting

The flaps open like petals and Mary is thus transformed into a rose, in whose lap lies the ‘lily’ (note the Child’s nubile colour and the form it takes together with the cloth, clear references to the ‘flos campi’) 13For the association between the expression ‘flos campi‘ and the lily, see St Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah, II, I (PL 24, 147)

In rosa latet lilium.” 14From a hymn to Mary in the collection of F. J. Mone, Lateinische Hymnen des Mittelalters, vol.II, p.419, Herder, Freiburg B., 1854-1855

Flos campi, convallium Singulare lilium, Christus ex te prodiit.” 15Adam of San Vittore, Salve mater salvatoris, PL 196, 1503

Behind appear plants and flowers well known to taxonomists of Marian plant symbolism. 16See, in particular, B. de Busti, Mariale de excellentiis regine celi, 1493, T. Raynaud, Nomenclator marianus e titulis selectoribus, 1639, I. Marracci, Polyanthea mariana, 1694

Proceeding from right to left, we encounter a soft-coloured rose, symbolising the Incarnation, flanked by a peony facing the Madonna. This is the ‘rose without thorns’, emblem of the Immaculate Conception. 17See I. Lorich, Triumphus beatae Mariae Virginis, apud Ioannem Strasserum, Friburgi Brisgoviae, 14, 173, 1610 The peony also appears in other works by Dürer, for example in the engraving of the Madonna of the Animals in the Albertina, Vienna.

Also in classical mythology, the Peony is connected to the sphere of motherhood and childbirth: Paean, Asclepius’ son, is said to have helped Leto (who was pregnant by Apollo and Artemis) to overcome the pains of labour by offering her the juice of the flower, in return for which the goddess transformed him into the same plant after which he was named.18For etymology and legends related to the peony, see Peony: the meaning of the peony flower Beyond a tree of which we only see the trunk and the beginning of the branches, a vine appears, luxuriant with green leaves19See Gospel of John, 15, 1-6, but without bunches of grapes. On the other hand, the true ‘fruit’ lies nearby, nourished by Mary’s breast.

Dietro la spalla destra della Madonna, Behind the Madonna’s right shoulder, two long stems of wild lilies with bluish petals, like irises, rise upwards from a single stalk. These so-called ‘sword-shaped lilies’ evoke Christ’s passion and are reminiscent of the flower symbol of virginal purity. In medieval Marian literature, the Virgin is referred to as the ‘iris surrounding Christ’ 20See Hugh of Saint-Cher, Commentary on Rev. 4,3 e 10,1 and the name of the flower is used in place of the term ‘arch21See Amadeus of Lausanne, PL 188 (1311)

Dürer played with the polysemy of the word, placing ‘an arch (the iris) on another arch (the architectural element)’.  The wild lily appears in other Dürer’s works, from the Promenade probably painted in the same year, to the slightly later, Watercolous in Bremen to the Madonna of the animals in the Metropolitan (1503).

It is interesting to note that the fleur-de-lis also appears in the coat of arms of the German Fugger family, designating, by association, the most illustrious member of the dynasty, Jacob, a very wealthy merchant, and banker who stayed in Italy for a long time. He was immortalised by Dürer in a portrait conserved in the Staatsgalerie, Augsburg. Further to the left, behind the clumps of grass, stands an architectural structure consisting of the remains of an arch and a masonry that runs through the entire second floor of the painting.

Through the arch, in which we recognise a part of the Greco-Roman theatre of Tindari, we glimpse a calm sea and a portion of sky. It is highly probable that Dürer painted in situ, combining attention to the realistic setting with the sacred representation, which reaches its climax with the depiction, amidst shades of azurite, of a dense cloud from which God appears, in a garment of the same colour as that of the Virgin. The Trinity is thus complete.

The combination of realism and symbolism is sublimated in the two butterflies: one purple on the train of the Marian mantle (on the left), the other white among the rubble (on the right).22The butterfly in paintings: symbol of new life| RestaurArs In a work that prefigures the destiny of Christ and that of the Virgin 23Lilies and roses surround Mary also at the moment of the Assumption, see Responsorio Vidi speciosam: “Et sicut dies verni circumdabant eam flores rosarum et lilia convallium”. , at the same time, Dürer reveals the mystery of the Incarnation. He translates it into a vivid image: in front of the sea at Tindari, before a young mother and her son, where, in all our humanity, we also feel like participating in that miracle.


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