Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud


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

In 1935 Walter Benjamin showed how an original work of art loses its aura through mass reproduction. This observation has taken on a particular relevance in the age of the internet. As Cologne’s most famous picture, indeed the hallmark of medieval Cologne painting worldwide, this Madonna has been reproduced countless times. So how has the ‘kölsche Mona Lisa’ succeeded in preserving its aura nonetheless?

The numerous details cannot be appreciated in a reproduction, but only in the presence of the original picture itself – the flowers at the Virgin’s feet, the angels’ musical instruments, the precious brooch and the heavenly crown, all the way to the decorations of the gold ground. And none of these things is an end in itself. Look at the ornamentation worked into the Virgin’s halo. It is a simplified representation of the lunar cycle, and relates to the medieval link between astronomy and theology. The tiny brooch symbolically takes up the main picture by showing a virgin with a unicorn. The two are linked in their gestures in much the same way as the Virgin and Child – an allusion to the mystical union between Christ and His church. In addition we have the ingenious geometry of the picture. It relates to the connexion between mathematics, music and heavenly architecture, identifying the modest bower as paradise.

Like a complex clock movement, all these elements intermesh to produce a theological statement of great density. Behind the ‘pretty’ whole, the artist has concealed a gigantic programme: the phases of the divine plan of salvation are wonderfully compressed. In this way the picture transcends human concepts of time – and human techniques of art reproduction.

Stefan Lochner (Hagnau c. 1400/1410 – 1451 Cologne): Madonna of the Rose Bower, c. 1440 – 1442, oak, 50.5 x 40 cm. Acquired in 1848 as a bequest from F. J. von Herwegh. Inv. no. WRM 0067. Photo: Rheinisches Bildarchiv.

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

Madonna of the Rose Bower
c. 1440 – 1442, oak, 50.5 x 40 cm
Acquired in 1848 as a bequest from F. J. von Herwegh
Inv. no. WRM 0067
Photo: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln