Our Lady of Seven Sorrows, Adriaen Isenbrant

Today’s post is the second in my fortnight of postcard posts, where I draw a card at random from my big box of them and try to say what I think about it. Here’s the rest of them.
It’s not going to get me on any lists of 2016’s most fashionable taste-makers but I love the Northern Renaissance, and in particular I love the sub-genre that is Sad Mary. To be entirely honest with you though, what I first thought when I saw this painting in Bruges’ Onthaalkerk Onze Lieve Vrow is that you could make quite a nice knitted hat inspired by the pleating of Mary’s veil, and I think reminding myself of that idea is why I have this postcard. I remember nodding reverently to the lady at the stall inside the church when I bought this, perhaps hoping to convince her that I wasn’t one of those tourists, I was deeper than that. I’m such a fraud: the way I feel about these paintings has little to do with piety.

Really I prefer the walled gardens and far away blue mountains of other Northern Art than this classical alcove that Mary has found herself in – do you think the ram’s heads are pointing to the idea of sacrificial lambs?  But my favourite thing in this painting is Mary’s hands, and the way she’s watching herself hold them still. Grief comes with wailing, but it also comes with blankness too. Her black robes spread her suffering further out around her.

I find it difficult, sometimes, to pay much attention to the sort of narrative panels of the life of Christ that we have here. The original audience for these types of painting couldn’t read the Gospels, and hadn’t seen two hundred other Lives of Christ elsewhere: they had time to become familiar with the work and weren’t rushing to cram everything into their eyes the way I do.   But I find in this case the focus on Mary in the smaller panels draws me back to the story: looking at her I’m touched again by the pain of it.

Adriaen Isenbrant, it turns out, might not have painted this, nor anything else that we still have.


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