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After Rogier Van der Weyden: Saint Luke drawing the Madonna

This painting in Bruges, a copy after Rogier van der Weyden, shows Saint Luke kneeling on one knee before Mary and Jesus. He draws her portrait with a silver pen on a sheet of paper that is mounted on a small, wooden plank. Mary sits modestly on the floor before the throne, above which a canopy of gilded brocade hangs. The throne indicates her status as the queen of the heavens. She offers her breast to her son. The entirety of the scene takes places in a borgeoise interior with a splendid view onto an inner courtyard, a river and a bustling town. In an area behind Luke, his attribute of the ox and a writing stool with a book are depicted. With this, the reference is to the gospel that Saint Luke wrote, according to the tradition.

Copy after Rogier van der Weyden, Saint Luke drawing the Madonna, ca. 1491-1510, Groeninge museum, Bruges.

The presentation is based on a legend from the 6th Century, in which it is said that Luke paints the portrait of Mary. For this reason, Saint Luke is the guardian saint of painters, and the guilds in which painters united were often named after him. This story is then also a cherished theme as altarpiece for the chapel of the Saint Luke's guild. The painting from which this Bruges work is a copy, is painted by Rogier van der Weyden before 1440. He probably makes it for the chapel of the Brussels Saint Luke's guild, of which he is a member. The original is preserved in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In addition to the Bruges work, there are also two true copies known that are kept in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich and in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The Bruges painting is the best in terms of quality of these copies and was probably painted around 1500.

Rogier's composition was inspired by Jan van Eyck's Madonna and Chancellor Rolin (Musée du Louvre) and a  lost painting by Robert Campin. He also paints a work full of the most exquisite details and creates one of the most influential works of the 15th Century.

The Boston Painting 

In 1893, the original painting became part of the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Because of a few inferior restorations performed in the 19th Century and a yellowed finish, the painting was first viewed as a copy after the painting in Munich or St. Pertersburg.

The Bruges painting was at the time in  private possession and was only publicly exhibited once in 1902. In 1932-3, the Boston painting was progressively restored.

The yellowed finish and the old retouchings were removed and a splendid painting of utmost quality was 'exposed'. From that moment on, the majority of connoisseurs were convinced that this was the original painting by the hand of Rogier van der Weyden. This attribution rested upon expertise knowledge. Only in the middle of the 20th Century was this hypothesis bolstered by proof from scientific research.

Scientific Research

The four paintings were all examined with scientific methods such as X-rays, infrared photography and infrared reflectography (IRR). IRR is a techique whereby infrared light is used in order to penetrate painting and drawing materials. All materials can be penetrated except those which contain carbon. This technique is primarily used to study the underdrawing--the drawing that the artist made on the painting before the actual painting took place. In the 15th and 16th Centuries, most materials used for this containted carbon, such as is also the case with these four paintings. X-rays complete this image because the various layers and possible changes amongst the layers can be differentiated.

The painting in Boston especially yields an interesting image. From research via X-rays and IRR, it appears that the artist has executed a number of small changes. Thus Mary holds her head somewhat less bowed forward, the legs of Jesus have changed position, Luke's face is slightly higher and rendered more in three-quarters relief and his head is altered in form. The most spectacular finding is an angel that holds the canopy over Mary's head, which is set down in the underdrawing. It was not produced in the final painting, however.

A number of other, small amendments share the same goal of enhancing the spatial suggestion of the painting. The folds of the mantels of Mary and Luke cover a larger area in the first rendering. By drawing the draperies smaller, it appears as if there is more space between the two figures. Secondly, the structural fortifications on the left are adjusted so that the perspective becomes stronger. The crenellations of the fortifications and the wall of the inner courtyard, and the figures standing before it are all made smaller. Finally, the river is also painted wider than it is in the underdrawing.

In opposition to the various changes in the Boston painting, the scientific research of the paintings in Bruges, St. Petersburg and Munich have 'exposed' none such changes. All three of the paintings closely follow the composition of the painted surface of the Boston painting. That means that the three anonymous painters copied from the completed painting that is in Boston. The artist of the painting in Munich even traced the painting from Boston and used that as the basis for his painting. It is possible that this is also the case with the Bruges painting, but this needs to be confirmed by research.

The Bruges Painting

Despite the fact that the painting from the Groeninge Museum appears to be a copy, it still has a great art historical value. The painting is of high quality and has been kept in very good condition. An anonymous artist painted it between 1482 and 1500. Except for the three virtually identical copies of the Boston painting, there are still many other works known to be inspired by this painting. What is striking is that nearly all of these works are dated at the end of the 15th Century. From this is seen how great the popularity of the work of Rogier van der Weyden and this composition were. It is possible that an aficionado of the work of Rogier van der Weyden commissioned the Bruges piece. It is also suggested that the copies were made to adorn the chapels of other painters' guilds in other cities. Due to the lack of any information on  the situation of the origin of the Bruges work, however,  for the moment, it remains speculation as to why the work was made.


Till-Holger Borchert, 'Rogier's Saint Luke: A Case of Corporate Identity?', in Carol J.Purtle (ed), Rogier's Saint Luke painting the Virgin and Child. Selected Essays in Context, Turnhout 1997, pp. 61-87.

Dirk De Vos, 'De H. Lucas tekent het portret van O.-L.-Vrouw', in Stedelijke Musea Brugge, Catalogus Schilderijen 15de en 16de eeuw, pp. 216-9.

Molly Faries, 'The infrared Studies of Rogier van der Weyden St. Luke Drawing the Virgin in Boston: Stages of Investigation and Perception', in Rogier van der Weyden St. Luke drawing the Virgin selected essays in context, Turnhout 1997, pp. 89-101

Rhona Macbeth en Ron Spronk, 'A Material History of Rogier's Saint Luke Drawing a Virgin; Conservation Treatments and Findings from Technical Examinations', in Rogier van der Weyden St. Luke drawing the Virgin selected essays in context, Turnhout 1997, pp. 103-134.

Jochen Sander, 'Copy after Rogier van der Weyden, Saint Luke drawing the Virgin', in The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden, Stephan Kemperdich en Jochen Sander (eds.), Frankfurt/ Berlin 2008/9.

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