The picture tells the entire story of the court B___, Duchess of R___berg. It’s a strange language, though—the economics of color in the late medieval era, the templates of the religious, the indifference to women in love, and the varying devotion to the differing mores of Christianity, framed for you in Gothic arches.
Most of you carry around a mere caricature of the medieval world. You assume Puritanical prudery—but the Puritans belong to a later age.
So, to the picture, once tucked into a niche at the convent at R___berg. Surely, this is a religious devotional.
Here is surely Mary, Mother of God—after all, is she not dressed in her signature ultramarine, the stunning blue of ground lapis lazuli that was brought from far Afghanistan? At the time, this color was worth its weight in gold and often reserved for the Virgin on this very account.
Here, surely, is her dear cousin Elizabeth. See, how she wraps her arms around the Virgin? How intimate. And these two small babes playing in the grass at the Virgin’s feet must be the Baptist and the Christ. Surely. Here, even, is a bucolic spring to foreshadow the Baptism.
The Duchess of R___berg was herself thought to be a virgin. Her parents arranged her marriage to a younger brother of a wealthy family before they died. She was famously described demanding abstinence of her husband on their wedding night.
Of course, these tales come from the sources out of the same convent in which we found the painting, where she was well-loved and to which she was quite generous. Her confessor, shepherd of the convent’s flock of nuns, attested in his little old-fashioned Vita to her many virtues, including holy virginity.
It is rather a different story from across the river. There you find a monastery, at other times tied quite closely to the convent. At the time of this tale, however, there has been a sundering between the two religious houses by the secular intrusion of the Duke of M__, also known as the Stag of M__, who acquired lands west of the river at the Duchess’s expense and had designs, yet, on R___berg itself.
Given his ample support of the monks in the Benedictine house on the west bank, perhaps it was merely political support for their benefactor that led them to vilify the Duchess of R___berg as a Sapphic, who spurned her sacramental marriage. It was quite possibly this allegiance which prompted them to name him the Stag, which in Christendom was the killer of snakes, defeater of evil, and often a stand-in for Christ, himself.
Or perhaps both versions of the story are correct depending upon your point of view. After all the monk who does the vilifying really cares less that she is a Sapphic and more that she refuses to consummate the marriage as a good wife should. Medieval men were generally unthreatened by the bumping of shields—only another’s sword thrust could cuckold him. Her husband, apparently found his fill piercing other shields than his wife’s, and was relatively unconcerned by these monastic aspersions.
A Lady G___ was the woman accused by the monk of being the duchess’s distraction from her marital duties. A widow, she was known to have raised two children in the Duchess’s court, and when the Duchess’s husband died, the eldest of these two was named her heir.
Let us return, then, to the painting. So here we have a virgin in the arms of another woman, two children playing at their feet. A virgin, but perhaps not the Virgin. Elizabeth and Mary are not described in the New Testament as having met after the birth of their children. Biblically, John the Baptist first appears leaping in Elizabeth’s womb at his divine cousin’s in utero arrival via the Virgin Mary. The lads don’t meet again until the river Baptism, shortly before John’s beheading for Salome at Herod’s court.
And here, across the stream from the happy family, we see the small stag. Is he there to defend the holy family against evil? Or he is the Duke of M__ relegated to the corner and his holdings west of the river; in the foreground, but minimized in the narrative in that way that Medieval artists could do so well. The Duke of M__ never got R___berg.
So, what have we then? Perhaps two women, lovers, hiding in plain sight behind the religious iconography of the day, painted by an anonymous nun. The very wealth of the virgin’s robe providing plausible deniability. A touching family scene eventually enshrined safely in a convent, away from the eyes of men.