22 December 2016 by Scott Smith
‘The Holy Family with Music Making Angels’ by the mysterious ‘Master of Frankfurt’ is one of the many glorious 16th century paintings in the Walker Art Gallery’s collection. Whilst undertaking restoration of the painting, our conservator David Crombie discovered that the anonymous painter may have left more of himself in the painting than he realised…
The painting is actually a central panel of a larger triptych altarpiece, with the two other side panels currently residing at the Mauritshuis in The Hauge. We do not know which church the whole altarpiece was intended for, but both the central panel and the wings were in Britain during the early 19th century and the Walker’s panel was a gift to the collections by Philip Henry Rathbone in 1895.
The Virgin Mary is represented as a mother breast-feeding the infant Jesus, and they are accompanied
by St Joseph and four angels playing musical instruments (which are interestingly all left-handed). Mary offers a pear to the Christ Child which is a symbol of Christ’s love. In the bottom right-hand corner is a chained monkey holding a pomegranate, which refers to the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden with which the devil had tempted Eve and Adam. It is a symbol of the fall of humanity, and because the monkey is shown chained and confined at the feet of Mary it also indicates Mary’s triumph over the devil.
We do not know the name of the artist who painted this picture but whoever he was he painted several other works. Two other well-known pictures attributed to the artist hang in the art gallery in Frankfurt, from which the name by which we know him is derived.
Mystery shrouds the artist, but our conservator David Crombie discovered an interesting clue during restoration:
‘During the cleaning of the picture, I noticed what looked like fingerprints in the paint surface, and examination under magnification revealed this to be the case. During the painting process the artist had softened a grey shadow adjacent to the longer costume tassel of the musician at the far left by dabbing across it with their finger. This left a softer appearance, but the actual fingerprints are still clearly visible.’
‘This is a nice human element to have such a clear visual connection with someone working more than 500 years ago, around the same time that Henry VIII became King at the age of 18’
‘The Holy Family with Music Making Angels’ is currently not on display whilst it is undergoing conservation. You can see other highlights from our 16th Century Painting collections online.
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