It’s my second day in Colmar and I’ve walked miles and seen centuries worth of art and architecture. I think my favorite of the day was also the first – La Vierge au buisson de roses (lah vee-erj o bweesoh duh roze) (1473) by Martin Schongauer. It’s housed in the Cathédrale Saint-Martin. The title means The Virgin of the Rose Bush. It’s un retable (altarpiece) sur bois (on wood). The title comes from the rosebush in the background. Symbolically, the rose is linked with Mary because she is known as “the rose without thorns.” Most of the roses are red, representing both love and the blood of the martyrs.
The rose was first brought to France from the Holy Land after the Seventh Crusade in the 13th century. In this painting, the same rosebush miraculously also produced a white rose, symbol of death, pre-figuring the Crucifixion. Other flowers with symbolic meaning are: giroflées (stock), their four petals symbolize the cross; lys (lily), symbol of purity, saints, and martyrs; and pivoine rouge (red peony), believed to protect against evil spirits. The entire strawberry plant is there; the white flowers symbolize purity, the clover-shaped leaves reference the Trinity, and the red fruit symbolizes the blood of the martyrs and Christ himself. Symbolic birds are also in the painting, including a rouge-gorge (robin) and a moineau (sparrow).
Two angels in deep blue robes hold an elaborate crown above Mary’s head. The whole work is saturated in rich color and the skin tones seem to glow with life. The deeply carved arch that frames the painting is composed of musical angels. This isn’t original to the painting; in fact, the corners were cut and the sides were trimmed in order to make it fit into this frame. If you visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston, you can see a copy of the painting in its original dimensions.
Being cut down isn’t the only indignity the painting has suffered. It was stolen in 1972 and remained lost to the world for 17 months. Finally, it turned up in a barn in Lyon and was restored with great pomp to its empty frame.
As for the artist, Martin Schongauer was born in Colmar. His family had just climbed into the bourgeoisie due to his father’s skill as a silversmith. This entitled Martin to certain privileges, such as a university education in Leipzig and the right to travel to continue his studies. He went to Beaune, France and studied another famous altarpiece, by Rogier van de Weyden, which inspired this painting. Schongauer’s frame spread far beyond the confines of Colmar. His fan club included Michelangelo and Albrecht Dürer. In fact, Dürer was on his way to study with Schongauer when the latter died a few days before his guest arrived. Schongauer’s immortalized in a statue by another son of Colmar, Bertholdi, but he’s a story for another day.
Today’s expression, ardoise vierge (ardwoz vee-erj) means the same thing as tabula rasa in Latin, or “clean slate” in English. In France, you’ll often see an ardoise outside of a restaurant listing the day’s specials. The beautiful painting is over 500 years old, but it seems fresh and new, like an ardoise vierge.