This refined and distinctive Master was named by the eminent scholar of early Flemish painting, Max J. Friedländer, after an altarpiece illustrating the Legend of Saint Barbara.1
The altarpiece, which had already been broken apart by that time, may have originally been constructed as a triptych or possibly a polyptych, though only two panels are extant. The larger of the two panels of this eponymous work is now located at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, while the smaller panel resides in the Confrérie du Saint-Sang at Bruges.2
He was evidently a follower of Rogier van der Weyden, though was also influenced by Dieric Bouts, and almost certainly worked in Brussels, since he collaborated on at least two occasions with other masters working there, namely The Master of the View of Saint Gudule and The Master of the Legend of Saint Catherine.
The tightly spaced scene depicts St. Ursula Protecting the Eleven Thousand Virgins with Her Cloak
. Born Ursula of Brittany, she was the daughter of the Christian King Dionotus of Dumnonia. At her father’s insistence she agreed to marry the pagan Conan Meriadoc of Armorica (who has been credited with founding Brittany), but not before a religious pilgrimage to Rome, circa
383, so that her suitor could be baptized. Upon their return from Rome, the couple stopped in Cologne, where they, along with her eleven thousand virgin attendants, were intercepted by the Huns, then in control of the German city. The pagan Hunnish prince asked Ursula to be his bride, but he was rejected. As retribution, Ursula was put to death by arrows, along with her attendants, all of whom were beheaded. Here the Master of the Legend of St. Barbara depicts St. Ursula punctured by a single arrow, her identifying symbol, as she protects her attendants with her finely rendered robe.
While the Master of the Legend of St. Barbara’s accepted output is quite small (Friedländer lists only twelve distinct works, including the present example, see Friedländer 1969, op.cit.
, pp. 78-9), one of the prime linking tendencies within his oeuvre
is his extraordinary attention to detail. Certainly this particular work must be considered among the finest examples, as Friendländer himself singled it out specifically: “The most charming work by this master is a panel, crowded with graceful women.”3
Perhaps most strikingly, the intricate red floral pattern within St. Ursula’s robe, with its carefully delineated contours and subtle golden highlights, clearly demonstrates the highly refined skill which impressed Friedländer. Furthermore, the still life details in the foreground are beautifully rendered, as the shade of green used perfectly complements the hovering fabric canopy above. Perhaps most emblematic of this master's skill is the attention to detail within each of the numerous faces of the angels and attendants. Equal care is given to both the background facial features and the bejeweled ornamentation of the crown at far left, as well as the individual red and purple folds of the drapery of St. Ursula's main attendants. The facial types of the figures here are comparable to those in the Altarpiece of St. Barbara
, namely in their lowered gazes and slightly elongated faced with pointed chins. Such attention to detail places this anonymous master directly in line with the leading Netherlandish artists of the 15th
century, both in his facility to manipulate paint with acute naturalism, and in his ability to create an austere, yet highly devotional image. It should also be noted that in its overall design, this work stands out from among The Master of the Legend of Saint Barbara's other accepted works. The figures, particularly Ursula, are more monumental than in his other panels, and the space is much more compacted than in other works where architectural elements are more prominent. That the figures themselves are the clear focus of the entire narrative acts as a device which allows the artist to highlight their every detail.
A compelling feature of this picture is the underdrawing that infrared reflectography has revealed (see fig. 1). The vast majority of the preparatory drawing for the composition is executed in a quick freehand manner. Numerous changes of details and shifts of outline, as well a repositioning of the faces and poses of many figures in the background are present. This clearly demonstrates that the composition is an original idea, and the artist has carefully thought, and rethought every detail of the picture towards the final painted product. While slight adjustments are made to the eye level and glances of some of the background figures, entire arm positions on the central foreground figures have been altered from their initial rendering. This is especially true of St. Ursula, whose right hand has been adjusted more than once, as well as her attendant at right, whose right arm appears to have originally rested upon her midsection.
In all respects this panel can be seen as a continuation of the great influence which Rogier van der Weyden had on artists not only in his adopted city of Brussels, but throughout the whole of the Low Countries. The extremely high quality, superlative condition, and masterful technique bring to light the importance of The Master of the Legend of St. Barbara within the narrative of painting in Brussels towards the end of the 15th
1. See M.J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, vol. IV, Leyden/Brussels 1969, pp. 98-99.
3. Ibid, p. 62.