CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

A medieval mystery: was there a Master of the Embroidered Foliage?

Exhibition: 22 January - 1 May 2005


This exhibition is organized by the Musée des Beaux-Arts, in Lille, France, and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Mass., in association with The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, under the auspices of FRAME (French Regional and American Museums Exchange), a coalition of twenty-four American and French regional museums.

Museum press release, 29 December 2004

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts presents four versions of a hallmark image believed to be by the mysterious fifteenth–century artist known only as the “Master of the Embroidered Foliage.” Gathered from public collections in the United States, Belgium, and France, the four radiant paintings are virtually identical in composition. Each features the Virgin Mary in voluminous robes sitting on a throne while the Christ Child in her arms leafs precociously through the pages of an illuminated manuscript. The Master’s panels differ only in their settings, landscape backgrounds, and other decorative details. Opening January 22, A medieval mystery uses modern scientific techniques and traditional art historical methods of investigation to determine if a single artist indeed painted all four images.

In 1926, the eminent German art historian Max J. FriedlĂ€nder attributed a group of late-fifteenth-century Netherlandish paintings of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child in identical poses to an unknown artist whom he called the “Master of the Embroidered Foliage.” In these paintings, the trees, shrubs, and ground cover are profuse, intricate, and delineated with a remarkable precision similar to embroidery. For the rest of the twentieth century, the “Master of the Embroidered Foliage” was thought to be an artist active in Brussels towards the end of the fifteenth century, stylistically indebted to his illustrious predecessor Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400–1464).

Van der Weyden was the leading Netherlandish painter of the mid-fifteenth century. His works were internationally celebrated for their naturalistic detail and emotional intensity, influencing the following generation of artists in Brussels and Bruges. Van der Weyden maintained a large workshop employing highly trained assistants, who efficiently made multiple versions of his compositions. Commissioned versions might contain specific landscape or decorative elements according to a client’s taste. Some elements in the four paintings on view are derived directly from van der Weyden’s known works.

For example, the background in the Williamstown painting is an exact-scale replica of the background in van der Weyden’s Saint Luke Painting the Virgin, which once hung in a private chapel in Brussels. The peacock in the Minneapolis painting is a recurring feature in medieval paintings of the Virgin Mary. The peacock, a symbol of immortality, was associated with the Virgin’s bodily assumption into heaven after her death.

But was there really a single “Master of the Embroidered Foliage” who apprenticed in van der Weyden’s studio? To answer this question, A medieval mystery brings together four of the paintings attributed to the Master of the Embroidered Foliage. Together with the Institute’s Virgin and Child in a Landscape, they include Virgin and Child Enthroned from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.; Virgin and Child Crowned by Two Angels from the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, Belgium; and the Triptych of the Virgin Surrounded by Angel Musicians from the MusĂ©e des Beaux-Arts in Lille, France.

In preparation for the exhibition, all four panels underwent a type of wood-dating analysis called dendrochronology. Also, the Institute’s painting was sent to the Art Conservation Center located on the grounds of the Clark Art Institute where, together with the Clark’s painting, it underwent non-intrusive scientific analysis, including ultraviolet light and X-radiographs. The under-drawings of both paintings were compared further using infrared reflectography (IRR), a non-intrusive analysis using infrared radiation to visualize the surface of the ground layers of old paintings on panel and canvas, hidden beneath the paint layers.

Almost eighty years ago, FriedlĂ€nder relied on his scholarship and discerning eye when making his attributions, most of which remain accepted today. But by using sophisticated scientific technology now available, A medieval mystery challenges FriedlĂ€nder’s hypothesis and suggests a new one for a contemporary audience.

Related Events

Lecture by Florence Gombert, A medieval mystery: was there a Master of the Embroidered Foliage? on Thursday, February 17, at 6 p.m., free and open to the public.

Other venues

Williamstown, Massachusetts, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (6 October 2004 –2 January 2005)
Lille, MusĂ©e des Beaux-Arts (13 May – 24 July 2005)


This exhibition is made possible with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Exhibitions Endowment Fund.