“St Luke drawing the Virgin”, Rogier van der Weyden, c.1435-40, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The tradition that St Luke was a healer or physican is based on Colossians 4.14. Another tradition says that he was an artist and that he wrote an icon of the Virgin. This was very popular subject in Flemish art at the time of van der Weyden. Here in this painting van der Weyden shows St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child which, of course, can’t be true, except in the sense that it is his Gospel which gives us the fullest “portrait” of the Virgin and indeed of the childhood of Jesus. It is significant that van der Weyden’s portrait of St Luke is in fact a self-portrait. He wears the red robe and cap of a physican but also holds the stylus of an artist and is kneeling. What unites van der Weyden, with St Luke the physican, and St Luke the artist, is a particular kind of attentiveness. Writing recently in the Washington Post, the art critic, Sebastian Smee, makes this point beautifully. He quotes Simone Weil: “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes love and devotion.” Van der Weyden’s scene looks entirely natural in so far as no angel or halo is visible, and yet they are there in the detail. Look it up on the Museum’s website and observe the beautiful diffusion of light from the distant horizon over the body of water and into the loggia, where it catches the gold threads in the cloth behind Mary’s head suggesting a halo and her sanctity. Herbert’s phrase “heaven in ordinary’ from his poem “Prayer(I)” or Malcolm Guite’s poem of that name comes to mind. Van der Weyden has carved Adam and Eve in miniature on the arm of the throne to remind the viewer that this child and his mother are the new Adam and the new Eve. The enclosed garden is a symbol Mary’s virginity and her purity of heart. The throne itself with its brocaded canopy presents her as Queen, while the low seat is a reference to her humility. Mary is breastfeeding which symbolised Christ’s blood and the sacraments of the Church. Even St Luke’s symbols -an ox and a book- are discretely present in the vestibule to the right. The saint’s face is that of the artist. This face of saint and artist shows an attentiveness to more than the physical. It can surely be read as one of prayer, devotion and love for the mother and her child. This is certainly true of the Gospel and the Acts which St Luke gave us. From today our Sunday Gospels are taken from St Luke.
The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.
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