Van Heemskerck’s St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child (1538-40)

Scenes of St. Luke painting or drawing the Virgin were popular in the Renaissance and often included the artist's self-portrait as St. Luke. On account of Luke's legendary portrait session with the Virgin, the saint was also the patron saint of painters throughout Europe. In this example, though, by Maarten van Heemskerck Luke himself does not appear to be a self-portrait but an alter ego.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Van Heemskerck, St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child (1538-40) Oil on panel. MuseƩ des Beaux-Arts, Rennes.

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Note how all four figures - saint, Virgin, Christ and Luke's attribute, the ox - all have an arm or foreleg curved and extended outwards like a painter's arm. The saint actually paints; the Virgin's arm extends forward as if painting the surface we look at; Christ's bends towards the parrot he holds and the ox's leg arches onto the white page of the book in reverse imitation of the artist's arm above facing the white panel. The latter seems to equate God's Word with Luke's image, Scripture transformed into Painting.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Van Heemskerck's St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child

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The ox, like many such attributes, plays a minor part in the composition, squeezed in under the seated saint. He still plays an important role though.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Van Heemskerck's St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child

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The ox has been designed in such a way that it imitates van Heemskerk's own form. Compared to a later self-portrait its head resembles the length of the artist's head and beard. His most unique feature, a very large lower lip, repeats in the thick lip of the animal. The fringe of hair across his forehead is also echoed in the strip of hair between the horns. 

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Van Heemskerck's St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child (1538-40)
R: Detail inverted of Van Heemskerck's Self-portrait with the Colosseum (1553) Oil on panel. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.

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As in examples by other artists, van Heemskerck conveys how man, a mere animal, can through dedication, craft and spiritual pursuit, become divine. It may also refer to how the physicality of painting's manual craft (animal body) is linked to its intellectual content (spirituality). Like all other great masters I have studied, Van Heemskerck seems to have followed the inner tradition of Christian mysticism and not the exterior, historically-based, didactic religion of the Secular Church, the one that served the masses.1

More Works by Van Heemskerck

Notes:

1. See Abrahams, "Two Medieval Churches" (2011).

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