Upper Rhenish Master
The Little Garden of Paradise, ca. 1410–20
A bright summer day. Mary is sitting in a garden and reading a prayer book. Little Jesus is making music, an angel and two saints are singing, a woman is picking cherries … Who painted this idyllic scene? It has not been possible to identify the painter; we know only that he was active on the Upper Rhine in the early fifteenth century. The panel, however, is a masterwork of its time.
The narrative wealth is combined with a depiction of nature breathtakingly accurate for the period in question. Nineteen plants and twelve types of birds, fish, butterflies and dragonflies have been reproduced with the utmost botanical and zoological precision. They decorate what is actually a traditional religious painting intended to serve its patron for private devotional purposes. It celebrates motifs of core significance to Christian faith in Late Medieval times, such as the virgin birth of the child (symbolised by the wall-enclosed garden) or the saints, all of whom have been furnished with attributes by which they can be recognized (Michael with the devil in the guise of a monkey, George with the dragon, etc.). Owing to its special mode of depiction, however, it is far more than just a religious painting – one could pray before it, but also discover within it the reality of the visible, temporal world.