M.K. has a Madonna and child painting, 25 inches by 33 inches, picked up at an estate sale in Santa Barbara 30 years ago. We see the luminous faces of the Virgin and child, beneath which we detect some script: "S. Maria von guien, Katy."
I began a quest to determine the origins and date of this unsigned rare beauty. Stylistically, I think the painting is late 15th to early 16th century. I rarely see paintings this old leaning against a client's wall. Don't judge age by the colors — most colors have been significantly over-painted. Judge the style of painting by the faces and technique of the molding of the faces; the faces seem to look at the viewer as if they have real dimension. This is a technique of painting picked up in early 16th century Northern Europe from the influence of the Italian painters of the Italian Renaissance.
When the style of the Italian Renaissance trickled up to Northern Europe, the result was a unique, realistic style of painting, with simple iconography, called the International Style, Late Gothic, in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. We see a trace of Byzantine iconographic painting, so beloved of the early Italian artists. Yet the realism and the tenderness of the glances between mother and child reflect a Northern European style, not Byzantine at all.
A stylistic analysis of a work of art does not necessarily tell us the date or place of creation, however. That's why there are so many paintings sold at auction as "School of Northern European, late Gothic Master," for example.
Note the lettering at the bottom of the painting: "von guien." "Von" is German for "of." So this Saint Mary was "of" a place called guien. Through much searching in various languages, I discovered that "guien" is a diminutive of the place name "Guyenne" or "Guienne," which is, in turn, derived from the region name Aquitania, the historical province of medieval France, once called Aquitaine, then Gascony, and now Bordeaux.
If you remember your Shakespeare, Eleanor of Aquitaine wed Henry II, delivering this region into the hands of England in the 13th century. This region did not return to France until 1453. Thus perhaps we can speculate that M.K.'s painting was painted for a church in late medieval Guienne to celebrate the region's return to the French crown in the mid- to late 15th century, or to commemorate that return later in the 16th century. Speculation is often dangerous, but let's make a few assumptions; real scholarship needs to include an analysis of the canvas, the paint: forensic analysis.
Imagination can confuse the matter but is often a jumping off point in old paintings. Notice the next word: "Katy." Katy is indeed a town in Poland. In the 16th century, the House of Habsburg (Austria) acquired a region called "Galicia" in Austrian-dominated Poland. (Don't confuse this Galicia with what you already know as Galicia, on the Iberian Peninsula. BOTH were controlled in the late medieval era by the Habsburg crown.)
Political change leads to the displacement of peoples. The painting has connections with France, and the Iberian Peninsula, with Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Habsburg Empire, and the Galicia of what is now Portugal. The connection is embodied in two Habsburg kings: one, Philip II, and his uncle, Ferdinand, who parted company in the late 16th century. Ferdinand became the Holy Roman Emperor and the king of Hungary (Poland) and Bohemia. Philip, his nephew, inherited the Netherlands, Naples, Sicily, Aragon and Castile, and the Iberian kingdom of Galicia. Under Habsburg rule, the king enforced the state Catholic religion, leading to The Inquisition in 1478; 300,000 people were killed, and many migrated throughout Northern Europe.
History can be a handmaiden to stylistic analysis of a painting, and research can be your best friend. Thus, we see that a region in late medieval France (Guienne) might have given the name to a special Madonna (St. Maria of Guien) who ended up on the walls of a church in Habsburg-controlled Eastern Europe (Galicia).
Now how did it get to Santa Barbara? Poland was partitioned repeatedly, but most remarkably and forcibly in the late 18th through 19th centuries. Political unrest often causes many great works of art to leave the country of origin.
The value is unknown, but I can tell you that the owner would consider selling.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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