Who is responsible for such a stunning masterpiece? Heralded as one of the leading Flemish painters in Bruges following the death of the impeccable Hans Memling, Gerard David (ca.1450-1523) became an imperative figure in Flemish Primitive painting. David, who was a native of Oudewater, Holland, arrived in Bruges in 1484 and maintained his workshop until his death in 1523. Similar to many other Flemish Primitive painters, David incorporates court life, noble practices, and emotional depth in his works. Though he shares these resemblances, David always preserved a haut level of sophistication, elegance, and grace in his own right. These elements of refinement are clearly visible in the Madonna and the Christ, a painting which exquisitely portrays the Madonna or Virgin Mary embracing the lifeless body of her child, Jesus Christ. Apparently, Christ has just been taken down from the cross on which he had been crucified, hence the wooden beam standing erect in the background. The spectator cannot ignore the intensity of such realism in the rippling of Mary’s clothing, the arresting frailty of Christ, and the dazzling light schemes. One is not exposed to a diversity of color; instead there is a subtlety very typical of David’s later style. Yet, however subtle the color may be, the viewer’s eyes are instantly drawn to the muted, bitter blue cloak, framed with a pale golden inlay in which Mary is enveloped.
Upon further inspection, one discovers that atop Mary’s head, a particular region of her garment becomes transparent to reveal a white article of clothing. Is this perhaps a mistake on David’s part or was this intentional? Or, this translucency may even be indicative of a light source beaming down over Mary. Another source of light shines on Jesus and accentuates brightness on his right shoulder. With such a use of light and shadow, David directs the viewer’s eyes to the Madonna’s hands resting tenderly upon Jesus. If one pays enough attention to the body of Christ, one can see a grayish blue vein bulging from his neck as well as reddish tones across the left half of his torso, which may all insinuate his physical sufferings. Mary’s blue garment is contrasted by her scarlet red sleeves, which not only touch Christ but may also signify the blood of her son that has been shed. With little to no decoration in the painting, David centralizes his focus on Mary and Christ. Much motherly compassion is shown not just through the way in which she gently holds her dead child, but also the sorrowful expression upon her face. With the exception of her thinly arched eyebrows, Mary lacks femininity and instead bears somewhat masculine features; including her prominent cheek bones which protrude outwards and reduce the curvature in her face. Despite such pronounced features, Mary has a nurturing quality about her. It is she who was always aware of her son’s destiny, and therefore exudes much sorrow and melancholy. This work of genius demonstrates precision, realism as well as the emotional profundity in David’s interpretation of the Madonna and the Christ; a subject which has been produced countless times by other artists.