The art essay

Madonna of the Rose Bower (c.1440–1442) by Stefan Lochner (c. 1410–1451)

What at first appears as a simple scene of the Virgin and Child in some far away heavenly place is indeed much more. Divine beings offer the Child adoration and praise, and so the woman is not simply mother, but the Mother of one who receives the adoration of angels: the Mother of God. And, like glorious realities of God, the scene is at once simple yet provides seemingly endless details that reward the viewer for close observation and contemplation of its sublime mysteries. Like the Incarnation, it is grounded in the familiar earthly experience of earthly things: mother, child, grass, flowers, fruit, and musical instruments. Yet angels play those instruments and offer that fruit and those flowers. Familiar things are brought to a believable yet unbelievable heavenly perfection, where all is infused with supernatural serenity, active quietness, and the intersection of humanity with angels and even the Persons of the Trinity. Stefan Lochner’s Madonna of the Rose Bower, then, does not simply portray a moment in the earthly life of Christ, but the hoped-for glorious life of every Christian: the uniting, like a bride and groom, of God and his creation.

Joining of heaven and earth

Importantly, rather than portraying a view of something, the painting gives a view into someplace. Angels in the upper corners pull back a scarlet curtain, allowing a view to a hidden heavenly realm. The radiance and light of the glorified world spills into earthly time and space, wrapping the viewer in a vision of his own future. God the Father and the Holy Spirit appear at the top, calling to mind not only the actions of salvation history, like the Annunciation, but the eternal worship of the saints who finally see God face to face for eternity. Though at the top corners the drawn curtain suggests the figures are behind it, the grass extends out toward the viewer, joining the ordinary ground of earth with the ground of the heavenly garden, “projecting” the scene outward toward the viewer in a kind of reverse perspective. This connection between heaven and earth is confirmed further, a tour de force move that requires the most careful and prayerful examination. The large blue sapphire atop the Virgin’s crown shows a tiny white reflection, barely half an inch in height. A close inspection shows that the tiny reflection is made up of two tall church windows that would be behind the viewer, establishing that she and Christ are not far away, but enter in to the very space of the earthly church building.


The new garden and the new Temple

The Mother of God sits serenely upon a red pillow trimmed with pearls, but this cushion is not atop a great throne. Rather, in her lowliness, she sits close to the ground atop a grassy area filled with violets, tiny flowers traditionally symbolizing smallness and humility. Unlike the violets that tie her to the ground, roses—the queen of flowers— surround her head, and a golden-clad angel over her right shoulder has already picked a red rose for her and is reaching for another. White lilies symbolizing spotless purity bloom behind her, and a spiky acanthus blossom, long associated in the classical world with virginity, blooms to her left, just above the lute-playing angel’s left hand. Yet precisely because of her virginal lowliness, she has been raised up to bear Christ in her womb and become Queen of Heaven, crowned with gold and gems. Rather than sitting on a throne, she becomes a throne for God himself. The large brooch upon her chest signifies her queenly status, and contains an image of a maiden with a unicorn, a reference taken from the 2nd-century Christian allegorical text called the Physiologus, which spoke of the unicorn as an elusive animal that could only be captured by resting in the lap of a virgin, an obvious allegory of Christ, who now sits on the lap of the Virgo virginum, the Virgin of virgins. All in all, the Virgin sits in a garden because she herself is compared to a garden, her own body a delightful place where the Son of God chose to dwell with men, a new and better Temple allowing God to dwell with his creation. The Jerusalem Temple of the Old Testament was understood to be a small “heaven” where God and humanity met in a new garden that replaced the fallen Garden of Eden. Because the Virgin became Mother of God, giving him her own flesh, God came to dwell among his people as the incarnate Christ, binding heaven and earth for ever in permanent union, raising the earth up to heavenly glory as the meeting place with God. Madonna of the Rose Bower might just as well be called “the hoped-for garden of every Christian,” for it allows the worshiper to see beyond the veil and encounter the perfection and serenity of what the Book of Revelation calls the new Jerusalem, which is prepared as a bride (21:2) to be the dwelling of God with humanity.


Unity, complexity, harmony

A hymn to the Virgin from the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great reads: “O Sanctified Temple and Rational Paradise! From you, God was Incarnate and became a Child…. He made your body into a throne and your womb he made more spacious than the heavens.” Lochner’s tiny painting, which measures a mere twenty inches high, imitates the endlessly fascinating reality of the Incarnation itself. When God became flesh, he took all of creation upon himself and united it to the loving God, a simple act with infinite consequences providing for never-ending theological contemplation. Though at first glance Madonna of the Rose Bower presents the unified simplicity of a woman with a child sitting in a bucolic setting, it then presents layers of fascinating detail, like the womb of the Virgin itself: strawberries in the field symbolize the blessed souls in heaven, angels with wings like peacock feathers point to glorified eternity, apples being offered to Christ signify the undoing of the poisonous fruit eaten by Adam and Eve. To ponder the mysteries of the painting is to ponder the mysteries of God himself: profoundly simple and endlessly fascinating.

Denis R. McNamara Associate Professor of Sacramental Aesthetics, The Liturgical Institute, Mundelein,

Madonna of the Rose Bower (c. 1440–1442), Stefan Lochner (c. 1410–1451), Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany © Bridgeman Images.