St Luke Painting the Madonna - A Closer Look
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.
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 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.