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Virgin and Child with Saints [Triptych of the Virgin and Child with saints] c.1510-20 Description: Triptych of the Madonna and Child with saints and angel musicians within a hortus conclusus (central panel) St Henry, St Helena and donor (left shutter panel) St Peter and St Margaret (right shutter panel)

Collection Title: Virgin and Child with saints
Place made: Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia, Köln district, Germany
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on three oak panels Support: twelve oak planks, assembled with the grain running vertically wings three planks with two vertical joints; central six planks

Primary Insc: No inscriptions
Dimensions: maximum 108.0 h x 79.0 w x 0.9 d cm minimum 102.1 h x 79.0 w x 0.9 d cm framed (overall) 126.5 h x 354.0 w x 6.0 d cm framed (maximum) 126.5 h x 87.7 w x 6.0 d cm framed (minimum) 114.5 h x 87.7 w x 6.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased with the assistance of James O Fairfax AO and the Nerissa Johnson Bequest 2001.
Accession No: NGA 2001.19.A-C
  • presumed to be one of the two triptychs presented to the Church of St Katarina, Cologne, by Ludwig, Commander of the Teutonic Order, c.1515 (inventory, Benzelrath Archive);
  • Jacob Johann Lyversberg (d.1834);
  • by descent following marriage of his great-granddaughter to Dr W. Virnich (d.1890), Bonn;
  • part of the Virnich Collection was dispersed by 1927 but the remainder, including this work, was sold at auction, Mathias Lempertz, Cologne, 26 May 1971, lot 516;
  • Trustees of the British Rail Pension Fund;
  • private collection;
  • bought through Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, London, by the National Gallery of Australia, February 2001

PLEASE NOTE: this work is on long term loan at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne more information

Cologne was a flourishing city in the years between 1400 and 1520, when its artists achieved great fame and distinction, especially for their elaborate multi-panelled altarpieces. Cologne School paintings are renowned for their magnificent colours, rich and indeed extravagant decoration, and brilliant narrative skills. Paintings of the post-1500 period, such as this triptych of The Virgin and Child with saints, show the complex artistic absorption of Renaissance classicism and humanism while holding tightly to the Gothic passion for detail and decoration. The influence of sculptural forms is evident, the static facial expressions and generous draperies harking back to a time of greater religious certainty. The triptych is a splendid example of the late flowering of the German Gothic altarpiece at the height of the Italian Renaissance.

The painting celebrates the important role of saints, not just as protectors and patrons, but also as mediators interceding with God on behalf of the devoted believer. The altarpiece depicts the Virgin and Child enthroned within an enclosed garden, flanked by angel musicians and six female martyr saints. To the left of the Virgin are St Agatha (feast day 5 February, attribute of breast and pincers), St Katherine (feast day 25 November, attributes of sword and broken wheel, receiving a ring from the Christ Child) and St Dorothy (feast day 6 February, attributes of chaplet and child with basket of flowers), and to the right of the Virgin, St Barbara (feast day 4 December, attribute of tower), St Cecilia (feast day 22 November, playing portative organ) and St Agnes (feast day 21 January, attribute of lamb). Above, angels carry the crown of the Virgin and support a canopy, and from a bust-length figure of God the Father the dove of the Holy Spirit descends towards the Christ Child. In the left background are small figures of a female saint (perhaps St Katherine) before the Virgin and Child, and a man fishing in a pond.

On the inner left shutter appear St Henry (feast day 15 July, attributes of crown, sceptre, imperial eagle and a church) and St Helena (feast day 18 August, attributes of crown, sceptre and cross), with a donor figure who wears armour, a mantle and a cross, and kneels at a prie-dieu decorated with a carving of The Fall of man. Next to him an angel supports a coat of arms surmounted by a crested helmet ─ the same arms recur on shields supported by lions on the arm-rests of the Virgin's throne. The inner right shutter depicts St Peter (feast day 29 June, attribute of key) and St Margaret (feast day 20 July, attribute of dragon). The extensive townscape in the background of the right half of the central panel and the right shutter is a view of Cologne, extending from the church tower of St Heribert in Köln-Deutz to that of St Gereon.

adapted from Mark L. Evans and Brian Kennedy, Triptych of the Virgin and Child with Saints, Cologne School c.1510-20, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia 2001, by Christine Dixon


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Catalogue of the Lyversberg Collection, Cologne 1837, nos.18, 19 and 20;

F. Kugler, Rheinreise, 1841, vol.2, p.312 (described as a fine example of the Cologne School from the early sixteenth century);

A. Springer, Köln Handbuch 1855, p.351;

E. Firmenich-Richartz, Bartholomaeus Bruyn und seine Schule, 1891, p.83;

H. Reiners, Die Kölner Malerschule, Bonn 1925, pp.254-255, fig.284, note 282, as Cologne master, first half sixteenth century;

P. Clemen, Kunstdenkmahler der Stadt Köln, 1937, pp,107, 111;

Hjorst-Johs Tümmers, Die Altarbilder des alteren Bartholomaus Bruyn, 1964, pp.127-128;

Mark L. Evans and Brian Kennedy, Triptych of the Virgin and Child with Saints, Cologne School c.1510-20, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia 2001

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra