Virgin and Child, c. 1395–1400
Master of the Straus Madonna, Italian (Florentine), active late 14th and early 15th centuries
Tempera and gold leaf on wood
Panel: 35 1/2 × 19 in. (90.2 × 48.3 cm) Frame: 45 13/16 × 27 1/2 in. (116.4 × 69.9 cm)
The Edith A. and Percy S. Straus Collection
Habits of Mind
- OVERCOME FEAR Overcome fear of ambiguity / fear of failure or being wrong / fear of the unknown
Virgin and Child
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Master of the Straus Madonna is the name of an anonymous painter active in Florence from c. 1385–1415. His name is derived from the previous owners of the painting, Mr. and Mrs. Percy Straus, who donated the devotional image to the MFAH in 1944. The Master of the Straus Madonna is regarded by many scholars to be the foremost painter during the late 14th to early 15th century in the late Gothic style. His body of work includes several large altar pieces, private devotional images, and numerous small panels. He is thought to have been a student of a follower of Giotto (1266–1337), the foremost Florentine painter of the 13th through 14th centuries. Master of the Straus Madonna worked during a period of stylistic transition, when the ornamental elegance of Late Gothic painting began to be replaced by the more naturalistic style of the early Renaissance.
This Christian-based devotional image represents Mary holding Jesus in front of a red and gold brocade “cloth of honor” that symbolizes their heavenly status. This composition of Virgin and Child is formal, yet the artist captures a moment of tenderness as Mary tilts her head towards Jesus and he affectionately grasps her finger. In keeping with a longstanding tradition, Mary is dressed in a rich blue cloak, the color of the sky and heaven in Catholic theology. The goldfinch in Jesus’ left hand commonly represents the soul in Christianity, making Jesus, in this symbolically rich work, the “catcher of souls.” The goldfinch is also commonly associated with the Passion of Jesus. The coral amulet hanging around the neck of Jesus was a talisman used since ancient times to guard against evil.
Master of the Straus Madonna’s painting style was a mixture of the ornamental features of the late 14th-century Gothic style and the early Renaissance developments of using light and shadow to paint the human figure as a volume in space. The artist is also known for his traditional patterning using gold ground, his use of rich colors, and his skill in rendering diaphanous drapery. The depictions of Mary and Jesus are extremely stylized. Christ’s enmeshed curls are illustrated as a repeating pattern of swirls while Mary’s thick mat of hair seems to roll back smoothly away from her face. Mary and Jesus are each crowned with lavishly patterned golden halos, indicating their heavenly status.
The extremely time-consuming technique of tempera painting is the primary reason this painting is so well preserved after 600 years. First covering the wood panel with linen and then coating it with a smooth layer of gesso, the artist then sketched the design onto the gesso using charcoal before applying thin, decorative layers of gold leaf. Next, the artist brought the figures to life with tempera paint—a mixture of egg yolk, ground colored pigment, and water. Because tempera paint dries quickly and is very difficult to blend, the artist worked with tiny strokes in thin layers. Before receiving its final coat of varnish, the painting dried for a full year.
In medieval Europe, devotional images were commonly used in the Christian faith to inspire piety, prayer, and a closer relationship with God. Wealthy citizens and families commissioned devotional images such as Virgin and Child for their homes or family chapels. But this was only after reforms by church leaders which allowed Catholics to have private prayer with God outside the confines of the church or a clergy-led prayer. These works were small enough to be moved from house to house, taken on trips, or placed near the bed of a sick person. This new devotional practice, in conjunction with the acquisitive tastes of the wealthy, led to the creation of the new art form of panel painting.
- At first glance, would you say that this painting is realistic or unrealistic?
- What parts of this painting are realistic, and what parts are not? Look closely at the figures and compare them to the background. Are they standing in a recognizable space? Do they look three-dimensional?
- Look closely at the decoration in this painting, both in the background and in the foreground. What does it tell you about the way the painter wanted to represent Mary and Jesus?
- Describe the relationship between Mary and Jesus using visual clues in the painting.
- What about this painting is confusing?
- Look at what Mary and Jesus are holding and wearing. What might the jewelry symbolize? What might the bird symbolize?
- The artist of this work, though scholars have not been able to determine their name, is one of the most important painters of the 14th and 15th century. They created a great many paintings and altarpieces, both large and small. Do you think that this style of painting would be popular today? Why or why not? Why do you think it was so popular in that time?
- Images of Mary and Jesus were very important to 15th-century Catholic worshippers. They provided comfort and spiritual solace, and even were given to sick people to help them get better. Why do you think these images were so important? Can you think of any 21st-century analogs?
- Observe the work of art for 30 seconds. At the 30 second mark, remove the image. Ask students to answer the following:
• How many (objects, people, etc.) are in the work of art?
• How would you describe them?
• How is each one dressed?
• What kind of background is depicted?
• Are there any animals in the work of art?
• How would you describe them?
• What is the subject of the work of art?
Chart the words to create a word bank by creating categories, such as types of objects (i.e. clothing, pattern, etc.) and list descriptors beneath each category.
- Revisit the work of art through careful re-examination, using the conversation starters. Add details, specific observations, adjectives, etc. to the word bank.
- Read the second paragraph in “Connecting to the Work of Art”. Choose a symbol to create a figurative language device, such as a metaphor or simile, to describe part of the painting. Add to the word bank.
- Compose a detailed descriptive essay about this work of art, using these word bank descriptors.
- Exchange essays with another class, prompting them to draw a rendition of the work of art from the detailed descriptions.
Subject Matter Connection
This artist created a mixture of egg yolk, ground colored pigments, and water to create tempera paint. Use these materials to conduct an investigation of the viscosity of tempera paint. Is this a solution or a mixture? What acts as the binding agent? Further investigate by painting onto watercolor paper. How long does it take to dry? What challenges might this present for an artist? How does egg tempera paint compare to other paints you have used?
Resources Available to Order
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All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.