october 9, 2004–JANUARY 2, 2005

mystery solved?

Q. Who was the Master of the Embroidered Foliage?

A.  In 1926 Max Friedländer hypothesized that a single artist--whom he called the Master of the Embroidered Foliage--painted the related pictures of the Virgin and Child. Before Friedländer made this attribution, other art historians had suggested a wide array of artists for the Williamstown panel, from Jan van Eyck to Hans Memling to Gerard David. Later, Friedländer himself suggested that the painting was by Jan Provoost, an artist working in Bruges in the early sixteenth century.

Our analysis, based on laboratory study and consideration of fifteenth-century workshop practices, demonstrates that these panels were all produced between 1482 and the early 1500s not by one but by several artists, perhaps sharing a common template for the main figures. Unless further conclusive evidence comes to light, however, we will continue to attribute the Clark painting to the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, while acknowledging that this is a catch-all name referring to a number of painters active in Brussels and Bruges in the late fifteenth century.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q: Why are the paintings from Lille and Minneapolis more similar to each other than any of the others?

A:  The striking similarities of the paintings from Lille and Minneapolis do indeed suggest a closer relationship between these two than between any of the others. It is possible that these two paintings were executed in the same workshop, while the others were executed in separate workshops.

Q: Why does the Infant Christ in the paintings not look like an infant, but rather a small man?

A:  In portraying the Infant Christ, fifteenth-century artists often tried to accentuate Christ's divinity by portraying the Christ Child with adult features that seem out of place on a small human baby. Also, portraying the Christ Child with adult features is a device that artists employed in order to visually foreshadow of the adult life of Christ in a scene otherwise devoted to his infancy.

Q: Are there more examples of this type of Virgin and Child?

A:  While there are only five in existence today (the four in the exhibition, and one in Edinburgh), it is likely that there were more similar paintings made, which have subsequently been lost over the years.

Q: Is it possible that the cloths of honor behind the Virgin feature pineapples, not pomegranates?

A:  While these may look like pineapples to a modern viewer, they are undoubtedly pomegranates. Pineapples were only first introduced into Europe in the very last years of the fifteenth century, and it is most unlikely that they found their way into these paintings. There is also a long tradition of depicting pomegranates in Christian art.

Q: How is it possible to tell what year a tree was cut down by counting the rings on a panel?

A:  The date when the tree was felled is determined not simply by counting the number of rings on the panel, but also by measuring the distances between the rings. These distances are then cross-referenced with known growth curve rings. For example, there will be less growth in a cold dry year than a warm wet year. The dates attained from this type of analysis (called dendrochronology) are approximate and indicate only the earliest possible production of the painting.