Cologne was a flourishing city in the years between 1400 and 1520, when its artists achieved great fame and distinction, especially for their elaborate multi-panelled altarpieces. Cologne School paintings are renowned for their magnificent colours, rich and indeed extravagant decoration, and brilliant narrative skills. Paintings of the post-1500 period, such as this triptych of The Virgin and Child with saints, show the complex artistic absorption of Renaissance classicism and humanism while holding tightly to the Gothic passion for detail and decoration. The influence of sculptural forms is evident, the static facial expressions and generous draperies harking back to a time of greater religious certainty. The triptych is a splendid example of the late flowering of the German Gothic altarpiece at the height of the Italian Renaissance.
The painting celebrates the important role of saints, not just as protectors and patrons, but also as mediators interceding with God on behalf of the devoted believer. The altarpiece depicts the Virgin and Child enthroned within an enclosed garden, flanked by angel musicians and six female martyr saints. To the left of the Virgin are St Agatha (feast day 5 February, attribute of breast and pincers), St Katherine (feast day 25 November, attributes of sword and broken wheel, receiving a ring from the Christ Child) and St Dorothy (feast day 6 February, attributes of chaplet and child with basket of flowers), and to the right of the Virgin, St Barbara (feast day 4 December, attribute of tower), St Cecilia (feast day 22 November, playing portative organ) and St Agnes (feast day 21 January, attribute of lamb). Above, angels carry the crown of the Virgin and support a canopy, and from a bust-length figure of God the Father the dove of the Holy Spirit descends towards the Christ Child. In the left background are small figures of a female saint (perhaps St Katherine) before the Virgin and Child, and a man fishing in a pond.
On the inner left shutter appear St Henry (feast day 15 July, attributes of crown, sceptre, imperial eagle and a church) and St Helena (feast day 18 August, attributes of crown, sceptre and cross), with a donor figure who wears armour, a mantle and a cross, and kneels at a prie-dieu decorated with a carving of The Fall of man. Next to him an angel supports a coat of arms surmounted by a crested helmet ─ the same arms recur on shields supported by lions on the arm-rests of the Virgin's throne. The inner right shutter depicts St Peter (feast day 29 June, attribute of key) and St Margaret (feast day 20 July, attribute of dragon). The extensive townscape in the background of the right half of the central panel and the right shutter is a view of Cologne, extending from the church tower of St Heribert in Köln-Deutz to that of St Gereon.
adapted from Mark L. Evans and Brian Kennedy, Triptych of the Virgin and Child with Saints, Cologne School c.1510-20, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia 2001, by Christine Dixon