Master of Mary of Burgundy: The Virgin in a church with Mary of Burgundy at her devotions (ca. 1477)

Between 1250 and 1700, nobility and prosperous bourgeoisie commissioned thousands of Books of Hours: prestigious prayer books for laypeople. Originally based on devotional texts chanted in religious communities at the eight canonical hours of the twenty-four-hour day, the number and variety of prayers eventually became flexible and personalized. Painted initials and illuminated borders decorated them, while full-page pictures helped to enhance individual reflection. Some of them are among the greatest art of the period.
A set of prayers all books shared were the Hours of the Virgin, dedicated to the praise of Mary, mother of Jesus. Mary of Burgundy, then the wealthiest woman in Europe, owned a precious book (ca. 1470-1477) in which a 263 x 225 mm miniature shows the fashionably dressed princess herself, sitting at a windowsill in her private chapel. She reads her prayer book, draped in green cloth to protect it from stains by direct hand contact. Her finger traces the capital O, starting a prayer of indulgence to her patron saint Mary: “Obsecro te Domina Sancta Maria” (I Beseech Thee, Holy Mary, Come and hasten to my aid and counsel, in all my prayers and requests, etc). Along the ledge, various objects of a still-life connect with Our Lady, such as rosary beads. The transparent veil, pearls and the crystal vase symbolize purity and virginity, while carnations prefigure the Passion of Jesus. The irises or ‘Sword Lilies’ in the vase represent Mary’s Seven Sorrows.
The window beyond this main pictorial setting transforms into a different, spiritual world. As if in audience to the painted prayer, the Virgin and Child are enthroned in the choir of a Gothic cathedral. Angels holding gold candlesticks mark the sacred space. In this image within an image, another noblewoman (Mary of Burgundy herself or her stepmother Margaret, who commissioned the book) pays her respect to the heavenly scene. Behind her, court ladies clasp their hands in prayer, while in the foreground a male figure (possibly Mary’s husband Maximillian of Austria) swings a censer of burning incense.
Identification of the figures in the transcendental setting is debated in the context of contemporary political circumstances. However, the total scene may be interpreted as Mary of Burgundy praying to the Virgin for the well-being of her stepmother and husband. They in turn petition Mary on her behalf. Either way, the spatial understanding of the anonymous artist known as the Master of Mary of Burgundy is impressive. Technical skill and psychological insight work together to merge physical and mystical worlds In a convincing trompe-l'oeil perspective.
(Jos Hanou)


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