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The Lord God is in the Details

In 1935 Walter Benjamin showed how the original artwork loses its aura through mass reproduction – an observation that is particularly relevant in the age of the Internet. As the most famous painting in Cologne and the universal “trademark” of the city’s mediaeval painting tradition, this Madonna has been reproduced countless times. So how has the “Mona Lisa of Cologne” never the less managed to retain her aura?

The countless details cannot be appreciated in reproductions; they have to be viewed in the original. From the flowers at Mary’s feet to the musical instruments held by the angels, to the precious brooch and the heavenly crown, not forgetting the decorations in the golden background. And none of this was an end in itself: just look at the ornamentation worked into Mary’s halo: it is a simplified depiction of the lunar cycle and indicates the mediaeval link between astronomy and theology. The tiny brooch repeats the main image on a symbolic level, for it shows a virgin with a unicorn. The two are linked by their gestures in much the same way as Mary and the Baby Jesus – in an allusion to the “Mystic Wedding” between Christ and the Church. In addition comes the painting’s ingenious geometry based on the old Cologne Zoll (1 Zoll = 2.4 cm): this alludes to the connection between music and celestial architecture and denotes the modest bower as Paradise. At the same time the geometry of the bower symbolises the divine plan of salvation in which Mary and Christ play the lead roles.

Like a complex system of clockwork, the elements interlock to produce an extremely subtle theological statement. Behind a delightful overall impression, the artist has concealed a gigantic programme: the phases of history and course of salvation have been condensed in a wonderful way. And with that the painting remains untouched by our human calendar – and by the technology of reproduction.

Stefan Lochner: Madonna of the Rose Bower, c. 1440 – 1442

Stefan Lochner
Hagnau (Lake Constance), c. 1400/1410 – 1451 Cologne

Madonna of the Rose Bower
c. 1440–1442,  Wood, 50,5 x 40 cm
Acquired 1848 as a bequest from F.J.J.M. von Herwegh
Inv. Nr. WRM 67