This large panel painting by a follower of Robert Campin combines the new interest in nature of the fifteenth-century Netherlandish artists with a long tradition of symbolic religious painting. There is a thoroughly believable quality about the heavy folds of drapery, the delicate leaves of the flowers, and the shallow space within the garden walls. Yet this world is invested with mystical overtones through the figures' quiet poses and the minutely observed details which are painted in glowing oil colors and displayed in a steady light.
John the Baptist holds a lamb, recalling his recognition of Christ as the "Lamb of God." Seated on the left is Catherine of Alexandria with her sword and wheel, the instruments of her martyrdom. Saint Barbara offers Jesus an apple or a quince, an age-old symbol of love. Her special attribute is the impregnable tower, a symbol of her chastity. Half-hidden by Saint Anthony's robe, a pig beside him symbolizes gluttony, recalling his triumph over temptation.
The walled garden refers to a passage from the Song of Solomon where a bridegroom speaks of his beloved as "a garden enclosed ... a fountain sealed." To early Christian and medieval theologians, Mary became associated with this bride, and the enclosed garden symbolized her virginity and also the lost Eden which is regained through Christ's birth. Even the doorway recalls Christ's saying, "I am the door. No man cometh unto the Father but by me."
A church in Bruges. Imbert de Mottelettes, Bruges, by 1831. Jonkheer de Potter-Soenens, Ghent, by 1839. Countess de Oudemard. (Wildenstein and Co., New York), 1946-1949; purchased June 1949 by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York; gift 1959 by exchange to NGA.
- Twenty Five Paintings from the Collection of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, 1951-1953, no. 15, as by studio of the Master of Flémalle.
- Stefan Lochner: Meister zu Köln, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, 1993-1994, no. 19, repro.
- The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden, Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt; Kulturforum, Berlin, 2008-2009, no. 12, repro.
- "Nachrichten über die alt-niederländische Malerschule." Kunst-Blatt 81 (1833): 321.
- Passavant, J. D. Kunstreise durch England und Belgien. Frankfurt-am-Main, 1833: 348.
- Spyers, F. A. "Beschryving van twee ... Schilderyen uit de School der ... Van Eyck." Belgisch Museum voor der Nederduitsche Tael- en Letterkunde en de Geschiedenis des Vaderlands. Ghent, (1839): 3:182-189, repro. opp. 183.
- Passavant, J. D. "Beiträge zur Kenntniss der altniederländischen Malerschulen bis zur Mitte des sechzehnten Jahrhunderts." Kunst-Blatt 55 (1843): 230.
- Michiels, Alfred. Histoire de la peinture flamande et hollandaise. 4 vols. Brussels, 1845: 1:410-412.
- Nagler, Georg Kasper. Die Monogrammisten. 5 vols. Munich and Leipzig, 1858: 1:1, no. 1.
- Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection Acquired by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation 1945-1951. Introduction by John Walker, text by William E. Suida. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1951: 168, no. 74, repro., as by Master of Flemalle Studio.
- Panofsky Erwin. Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1953: 1:425-426.
- Davies, Martin. Primitifs flamands. Corpus. The National Gallery London. 3 vols. Antwerp, 1954: 2:177, under no. 57.
- Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 277, repro., as by Master of Flémalle and Assistants.
- Richardson, E. P., ed. "Accessions of American and Canadian Museums, April-June 1959." The Art Quarterly 22, no. 3 (Autumn 1959): 273, 275, repro.
- Broadley Hugh T. Flemish Painting in the National Gallery of Art (Booklet no. 5 in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC). Washington, 1960: 3, 14-15, color repro.
- Meiss, Millard. "`Highlands' in the Lowlands: Jan van Eyck, the Master of Flémalle and the Franco-Italian Tradition." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 57 (1961): 277, 310, fig 5.
- Seymour, Charles. Art Treasures for America: An Anthology of Paintings & Sculpture in the Samuel H. Kress Collection. London, 1961: 12-14, 218, color fig. 9-11
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 304, repro., as Master of Flémalle and Assistants.
- Koch, Robert A. "Flower Symbolism in the Portinari Altar." The Art Bulletin 46 no. 1 (March 1964): 75.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 85, as by Master of Flémalle and Assistants.
- Frinta, Mojmír S. The Genius of Robert Campin. The Hague, 1966: 118, 120-121, fig. 72-73.
- Stange, Alfred. "Vier südflandrische Marientafeln. Ein Beitrag zur Genese der niederländischen Malerei." Alte und moderne Kunst 11, no. 89 (1966): 19, fig. 21.
- Van Gelder, J. G. "An early Work by Robert Campin." Oud Holland 82 (1967): 3-4.
- European Paintings and Sculpture: Illustrations (Companion to the Summary Catalogue, 1965). Washington, 1968: 75, no. 1338, repro., as by Master of Flémalle and Assistants.
- Sterling, Charles. "Observations on Petrus Christus." The Art Bulletin 53 (1971): 5.
- Vos, Dirk de. "De Madonna-en-Kindtypologie bij Rogier van der Weyden." Jahrbuch der königlich Preussischen Kunstsammlungen (Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen) 13 (1971): 71, 74-80, 92, 97, 154, 156, 158, fig. 11.
- Ward, John L. "A Proposed Reconstruction of an Altarpiece by Roger van der Weyden." The Art Bulletin 53, no. 1 (March 1971): 32-33, fig 9.
- Davies, Martin. Rogier van der Weyden. London, 1972: 261.
- Kerber, Ottmar. "Die Hubertus-Tafeln von Rogier van der Weyden." Pantheon 30 (1972): 299.
- Bruyn, Josua. Review of Rogier van der Weyden by Martin Davies. The Burlington Magazine 116 (1974): 540.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 220, repro. 221.
- Verdier, Philippe. "La Trinité debout de Champmol." In Etudes d'art français offertes à Charles Sterling. Paris, 1975: 85.
- Eisler, Colin. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian. Oxford, 1977: 46-50, fig. 47, color repro.
- Eisler, Colin. Review of Petrus Christus by Peter H. Schabacker. In Art Bulletin 59 (1977): 141.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 125, no. 113, color repro., as by Master of Flémalle and Assistants.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 71, repro.
- Hand, John Oliver and Martha Wolff. Early Netherlandish Painting. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1986: 35-40, color repro. 37.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 37, repro.
- Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane. "Virgin/Virginity." In Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art. Edited by Helene E. Roberts. 2 vols. Chicago, 1998: 2:905.
- Amsler, Mark. Affective Literacies: Writing and Multilingualism in the Late Middle Ages. Turnhout, 2012: color plate 4.
The panel is made up of five horizontal boards. The unpainted edge on all sides suggests that the panel was painted in an engaged frame. The present frame is a composite construction, the oak bottom member, including the inscription, being older than the softwood top and side elements to which it is joined. The painting was cleaned and disfiguring overpaint removed in the 1830s. The panel was cradled in 1947 by Stephen Pichetto, and the painting was partially cleaned and restored at that time. A fire on 26 December 1956 left the paint surface blistered, stained, and darkened. Mario Modestini secured the blisters and in 1958-1959 cleaned and restored the painting. In spite of its history, the painting is in relatively good condition. There is inpainting along the joins and in scattered areas throughout the picture. There is also a certain amount of abrasion throughout. Larger areas of loss and inpainting occur in the Baptist's proper right leg and the robe above it, in some lower parts of the Virgin's robe, and at the base of her neck.
The figures are underdrawn with the brush, using long strokes and some rather widely spaced cross hatching. The position of the heads has been adjusted slightly in relation to the underdrawing. The four saints onginally had round halos with concentric rings that were incised in the ground layer and apparently prepared in gold. These are visible under the microscope and with infrared reflectography. They seem to have been overpainted in the course of the painting process. Gold is also used as the background of the cloth hanging from the back wall. A green paint layer forms the brocade pattern, with the gold background showing through as schematized flowers.
 The frame and inscription are shown in the print in Speyers 1839, opp. 182. The inscription reads: O maria consolatrix. Esto nobis advocatrix Rogans regem glorie Ut nos Jungat Superis Donans nobis miseris / Post Spem frui Specie Que regina diceris Miserere [p?]osteris Virgo mater Gracie Amen (O Mary, our comforter, intercede for us asking the King of Glory that we may rejoin those on high, granting to us, wretches, the fulfillment of hope of seeing him. Thou, who art called Queen, Have mercy on us later born, Virgin Mother of Grace). The inscription is followed by a housemark. The same housemark appears as part of the illumination of a copy of Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiae printed in Ghent in 1485 by Arend de Keysere, now in the Library of Congress; repro. in Sandra Hindman and James Douglas Farquhar, Pen to Press: Illustrated Manuscripts and Printed Books in the First Century of Printing [exh. cat. University of Maryland Art Department Gallery] (College Park, Maryland, 1977), pl. 3. While noting that the calligraphy of inscriptions needs further study, both Paul Saenger of the Northwestern University Library and P.F.J. Obbema of the Leiden University Library were inclined to date this inscription to the early sixteenth century, citing, for example, the type of flourishes and the form of the s (letters of 31 March 1983 and 23 June 1983 in curatorial files).  Speyers 1839, 188. Shortly after entering the De Potter-Soenens collection, the picture was cleaned and disfiguring overpaint, which had caused Passavant to consider it a pre-Eyckian tempera painting, was removed; see Passavant 1843, 230 and Nagler 1858, 1. I am grateful to Lorne Campbell for the first of these references.