Stefan Lochner - Madonna in the rose arbor

by Alexandra Tuschka


The gold background reveals two things: on the one hand, the painting feels committed to the medieval formal language, and on the other hand, this is a highly precious subject - Mother Mary with the baby Jesus. Of course, she wears the Madonna color blue, because this was one of the most expensive manufacturing materials in the Middle Ages and therefore associated with the Mother of God. Moreover, the color symbolizes the sky. Mary is distinguished here by her jewelry as a ruler; above her head God the Father sends the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The entire scene is still animated by angels. Four of them, below, are making music; others are reaching for fruit or flowers. The vines, on which there are red roses, give the painting its name. The arbor is the "hortus conclusus," the enclosed space that serves as paradise. Two angels in the upper edge of the picture pull aside the curtains and present us with a view that not every viewer gets. Mary looks thoughtfully at the floor. Her dress, typical of this type, throws soft folds in a triangular composition. Lochner works here with intensive shading gradations. Interestingly, he dabbed the color close together for this, achieving greater density and depth, or a darker effect. This was a novelty and was only used by the artist for motifs particularly worthy of the picture. 

In this work, almost everything seen is pregnant with meaning: in the halo of the protagonist, aspects of contemporary representations of lunar cycles are taken up. And in the brooch, unicorn and virgin are shown in a similar bond, like mother and child. The unicorn could only be captured by a pure virgin. Jesus accepting a fruit also figuratively accepts his fate with this gesture. Since it concerns here an apple, this refers certainly also to the fall and represents Jesus as descendant of Adam, who is able to dissolve the original sin, which weighs since this day on humans, finally. Furthermore, we find all kinds of symbolic motifs that could well be understood by a cleric on his part. The white lily stands for the purity of the sitter, roses as a symbol of love and death. At Mary's feet, on the green lawn, we find strawberries; a plant that is also a symbol of the Trinity by its trifoliate nature. The gesture of the clasped wrist on the boy Jesus also refers to contemporary wedding rituals. 


The work was often copied and is popularly known as "Die kölsche Mona Lisa". That really Stefan Lochner painted this work, one can not say unequivocally, but strongly suspect. In the Middle Ages, artists were still craftsmen and rarely signed their works. However, through Albrecht Dürer, who mentions a Cologne master, Lochner could be traced. 


Stefan Lochner - Madonna in the rose arbor

Oil on oak, c. 1440 - 1442, 50.5 x 40 cm , Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne

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