St. Luke Painting the Madonna

Wood, 43.1 x 32.3 inches (109.5 x 82 cm.)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

I adopt the title for this painting provided by the Web Gallery of Art. However, there is reason to doubt that the artist in the painting is in fact St. Luke. The artist did not include an ox, even though he could easily have included one in the tracery on the columns or in the lower left or right corners. Nor is the artist making a painting at an easel, as Luke normally does. Rather, he kneels at a prie-dieu and makes a sketch with a pen, his hand guided by the angel at his shoulder.

Mabuse had done an earlier painting of St. Luke painting the Virgin and Child from life, as tradition said he did. In this one the artist works instead from a vision of the Virgin and Child with angels in Heaven.

Most likely, this is a painting of the contemporary artist at his work. The world he lives in is still partly darkened by the old idolatry and the Old Law represented respectively by the tempietto and Moses in the shadows behind him. This old world is separated from Heaven by the strong vertical line of the left column. But the Virgin and Child, and the act of painting them, rupture that line, as the rich colors and bright light of Heaven flood over the artist and the angel.

Of course the act of painting the Virgin unmistakeably references St. Luke, and the artist's posture at a prie-dieu with books also unmistakeably refers to Mary's kneeling at just such a prie-dieu in Annunciations of this era. It is not that the artist is supposed to "be" Luke, much less the Virgin Annunciate. Rather, these references to the irruption of the divine into one's life are a comment on what it is to make images of Christ and the saints – not a job of work, but a gift. As T. S. Eliot puts it,

The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future are conquered, and reconciled…
More of St. Luke

Source: Web Gallery of Art