Maerten van Heemskerck

Frans Hals Museum

St Luke Painting the Madonna - A Closer Look

Maerten van Heemskerck
Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574) was a farmer’s son from Heemskerk, the Netherlands. Following an apprenticeship with a painter in Haarlem, he reluctantly had to return home and help on his father’s farm. After a while, with nothing more than a rucksack and some money from his mother, Van Heemskerck fled, making his way to Delft via Haarlem. From 1527 to ca. 1530 he worked in the studio of Jan van Scorel in Haarlem.

In the lower corner, a spider has spun its web between a nail and the edge of the panel. This adds to the lifelike quality of the picture, as the spider has made its web on the completed panel, just as it might do in real life.

In his desire to demonstrate his craftsmanship and mastery, Maerten van Heemskerck added several details into the painting that made the image more lifelike. For example, he painted his initials MVH on the platform as if they were actually carved into the stone. You almost want to run your fingers over it to feel the grooves etched within the stone.

You can tell from the strikingly low perspective that the work was created for a high position: as an altarpiece or hung from a pillar, for example. The figures sit on a raised platform and are depicted from below, as if you are looking up at them. The baby Jesus sits on a crystal globe with a cross staff, which refers to Christ’s world domination and the ultimate sacrifice that was his crucifixion. As young as he is, Jesus is making a blessing gesture.

The composition of St. Luke’s painting is shown in black chalk on the grey background of the prepared panel. St. Luke is now painting the portrait and uses a maulstick (a painter’s stick) in order to support his right hand.

St. Luke is one of the Four Evangelists. He was a physician and a gifted painter. According to 6th-century legend, he painted the portrait of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, and therefore became the patron saint of artists.

In this painting, St. Luke is depicted as an old man who wears pince-nez. His head is painted with great accuracy, with furrows and veins in his face. According to painter and writer Karel van Mander (1548-1606,) a Haarlem baker posed as the model.

Behind St. Luke stands a man wearing a wreath of ivy, a classic feature of a poet. His right hand guides St. Luke’s painting hand, while his left arm makes a wide gesture, as if he is summoning poetic inspiration. He is the personification of the artistic imagination and invention. Here, Van Heemskerck emphasises his belief that painting is not a craft, but one of the liberal arts. The art of painting was equated with poetry. It was the imagination that was key, not the execution.

A piece of paper is nailed to the raised platform, at the bottom left of the painting. It is slightly creased and curled, as if it has been there for a long time. On it is a verse that states that Van Heemskerck made the painting for his colleagues in the Guild of Saint Luke, which was a guild for painters.

The nails that attach the letter to the platform seem to realistically jut out of the painting; their long shadow lines helping to reinforce the illusion. Where does the line between two-dimensional and three-dimensional lie here?

The nails are not the only things that protrude. The Virgin Mary and baby Jesus sit on a raised platform and are depicted from below. Mary’s big toe sticks out over the edge of the platform and seems to extend beyond the surface of the canvas. As does St. Luke’s palette.

The painting shows that Van Heemskerck learned a lot from the Italian Renaissance artists. For example, realistic classical figures are featured on the easel, as well as Mary’s and St. Luke’s seats. Furthermore, the clothes that Mary and St. Luke wear are made from colourful and exotic fabrics.

Karel van Mander found that the transitions between the light and dark areas were not very smooth. This strong light-dark contrast is, combined with the use of rich deep colours, typical of Renaissance art.

The Form
The painting is no longer in its original form. The top is believed to have been cut off sometime in the early 17th century. In Van Mander’s documented description of the painting, he mentions that there was also a parrot in a cage painted above Mary and Luke: ‘above, there hangs a parrot with its cage.’ The parrot is a symbol of the Virgin Mary’s purity, as well as of eloquence. The section with the parrot has been lost since the 19th century.
Maerten van Heemskerck
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