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The Madonna of the Rose Garden

The Madonna of the Rose Garden

Martin Schongauer (1435-1491). Eglise de Saint Martin – Colmar. 1473.

Martin Schongauer was born in 1435, in the same year as took place the Conference of Arras of which we talked in the previous chapter. He was born in Augsburg, the imperial city where many Diets were held of the German Emperors, a city not far from Munich. He died in Breisach of the Alsace in 1491. Schongauer worked very young in Colmar. The Alsace region owed still allegiance to the German Empire in the fifteenth century. Today it is in north-eastern France but German is spoken as much as French is. The region is rich of agriculture. Currently it is one of the grand wine regions of France. Its Rhine valley assured fertility and a warmer climate than in the surrounding mountains.

Little is known of Schongauer. His influence on German painting was considerable however. Few works of his hand have survived, especially few paintings. But Schongauer was a prolific engraver, one of the first copper engravers, and it is mostly through this medium and the growing use of printing presses that he gained fame. The other great painter and engraver of Germany, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg, travelled to meet him, but Schongauer had just died. Martin Schongauer painted in the International Gothic style, but the freedom with which he represented his scenes and in particular his figures make of him an artist who left established tradition for new, individual paths. In his paintings he used harmonious colours and he adapted the subject to his colour harmony. His figures are realistically depicted. They are portraits of common people that Schongauer might have met in the Alsace towns of Colmar and Strassbourg or the many small villages of the Rhine region. Schongauer was one of the first German painters thus to have drawn attention to the people around him and to introduce these realistic elements in religious paintings in Germany. Martin Schongauer painted around 1473 a ‘Madonna in the Rose Garden’ for the Saint Martin church of Colmar. This was a couple of years only after he had settled with his own workshop in Colmar. The painting is typical of the theme of the Virgin sitting in a garden of roses. This garden of roses is a reference to several poetic lines of the Song of Songs of the Bible:

I am the Rose of Sharon,
The lily of the valleys.
As a lily among the thistles,
So is my beloved among girls.


She is a garden enclosed;
My sister, my promised bride. G38

From these lines come many painted scenes of Mary in an enclosed garden, the Latin ‘hortus conclusus’.

Mary was always also a symbol of wisdom since she was often represented with the open book of wisdom. So we find on wisdom in the book of Ecclesiasticus the following lines, which also refer to roses as well as to palm trees with which the virgin is sometimes associated:

I have grown tall as a palm in En-Gedi,
As the rose bushes of Jericho.

Mary was thus often called ‘The Rose of Jericho’. The theme of Mary sitting in a rose garden is a recurring one, especially in the German pictorial arts.

In the painting of Schongauer Mary is sitting with the baby Jesus on her lap in an enclosed rose garden. She is sitting like ‘a lily among the thistles’, which are then the thorns of the rose bushes. She sits in an ‘enclosed garden’ as is written in the Canticle of Canticles. The roses indeed grow around her in a hedge. The roses are red, the colour of the Passion of Christ. The Virgin is completely dressed in red, which is an unusual colour for Mary. She is usually shown with a blue cloak. But these colours for her would have been too harsh as compared to the rose garden of red and green behind her. The red tones suit harmoniously and give the picture a very warm hue against the green background. In the rose bush are birds; these are the goldfinches whose necks have turned red after having nipped of Jesus’s blood at Golgotha. Large red roses bloom around Mary, but also a single white rose can be seen close to her, indicating her purity.

The enclosed garden of Mary was a strong symbolic theme in Western Europe, and especially in Flanders. Pious women who remained unmarried but who did not feel inclined to enter the Catholic orders as nuns, lived together in rows of small houses built around a central garden. In Dutch these are called ‘begijnhoven’ or beguinages and the best preserved of these is in Bruges. In many towns of Flanders and Brabant these beguinages can still be admired. They are havens of peace, where spirituality still hangs in the air. The pious ladies worked on embroideries and on lace in their small houses around the enclosed garden of their beguinage. They rarely painted, but one type of their artisans’ work were the boxes called ‘Enclosed Gardens’ of which many have been preserved. These were wooden boxes, sometimes as large as one meter wide and high, about fifteen centimetres deep. The boxes were placed upright. Inside the boxes were placed small puppets of Mary and of saints, splendidly dressed in white lace and surrounded by dried flowers, miniature candle bearers, and so on. White was generally the overall colour. Usually at the lower end of the box one can see a small fence, thus hinting at the enclosed garden of the Song of Songs.

Martin Schongauer’s picture is a ‘Throning Madonna’ since two angels hold an enormous crown symbolically over Mary’s head. The painting is unconventional in various ways. The hair of the Madonna is flowing freely over her shoulders. This feature was reserved since old for Mary Magdalene; it was a sign of sensuality that was rarely associated with Mary. Jesus and Mary are looking in different directions, whereas Mary usually only has eyes for her son. Mary is painted as a melancholic young lady. She holds her head inclined; she smiles affably, secretly and contentedly. But Jesus already tries to escape from her. We mentioned that the colours of Mary’s robe are not conventional. Martin Schongauer must have been one of the first painters to emphasise the strong pyramidal composition, which is obtained by the red cloaks of Mary. Schongauer certainly was a highly skilled colourist and he knew very well how to paint with realism the smallest detail, as in the various tones of the folds of the red cloak of Mary.

Martin Schongauer proved with this painting and a few only similar ones, which have survived to us, that talent was universal in Europe of the fifteenth century and that painters were becoming more confident also in that company to profile their genius against established traditions in art. German pictorial arts had a fabulous representative in him, to lead subsequent generations of painters into the German Renaissance. The most erudite of his admirers would be Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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