The luminous stained-glass windows of the great Gothic cathedrals and churches of northern Europe are among the most glorious expressions of medieval Christianity. This lovely small panel once graced part of a larger window, its jewel-like colours radiant with transmitted light. It depicts the crowned Virgin dressed in a sumptuous deep-blue cloak over a white gown and yellow undergarment. The squirming naked Christ Child in her arms holds a flower (probably a rose) in his left hand, while playfully tugging on a tress of his mother’s hair with the other. A crescent moon is visible beneath the Virgin’s feet, and she is framed by a mandorla of shining orange tongues of flame, representing the sun. This iconography derives in part from the Virgin’s association with the woman of the Apocalypse described in Revelation 12:1: ‘And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’. In the prayers known as the Litanies to the Virgin she is also identified with the maiden of the Canticle of Canticles 6:9: ‘who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun’. In this panel, the Virgin is represented as the Queen of Heaven, the Virgin immaculate, her purity demonstrated by the presence of the Christ Child.
This iconographic type of the Virgin and Child originated in Germany and became popular by the mid-fifteenth century, prompted by the growing interest in Mary’s Immaculate Conception. The doctrine that Mary had been conceived without sin had long been a matter for debate and was officially sanctioned at the Council of Basel in 1439, although it was not defined as an article of faith until 1854.
The panel includes pot-metal glass, represented by the rich blue of the Virgin’s cloak and the ruby red of the background. These deeply coloured sections were created by the addition of metal oxides to molten glass, which was then cooled and cut to shape. The parts comprising the whitish regions of the Virgin, child and ground are composed of colourless glass. The fine details of the child, the Virgin’s hair, features and drapery, and ground plants were painted on with a vitreous paint composed of ground glass, iron filings and wine. Subsequent firing fused the paint to the surface of the glass. The yellow colours of the Virgin and child’s hair, the crown, haloes, belt, underskirt, crescent moon and sun rays were the result of silver compounds (such as nitrate, chloride, sulphate or oxide) painted onto the reverse of the glass segments. Under firing, a chemical reaction stained the glass various shades of yellow and orange. Finally, the pieces were surrounded by double-channelled lead cames (or bars) and fitted together. The lead was then soldered before the panel was set in place in the window of the church.
The panel’s Flemish or Germanic origin is suggested by the Virgin’s voluminous drapery folds and weighty, solid figure, in addition to the motif of the child clutching his mother’s hair, which also appears in contemporary Netherlandish painting. It is possible that the panel was designed to fit within a glazed depiction of the Tree of Jesse, which around the mid-fifteenth century began to appear in Germanic art with images from the life of the Virgin instead of Christological scenes.