St Luke Painting Madonna

Master Theodoric, Court Painter of Prague


In the final post of the current series on the patronage of Charles IV, Laura Slater looks at the work of Master Theodoric, court painter to Charles IV. 

Another famous panel painting found in the Holy Cross Chapel at Karlštejn Castle is an image of St Luke the Evangelist, found on its north wall.

Saint Luke holding a book, with winged bullSt Luke is shown with his symbol or attribute to help us recognise him: the winged bull at his shoulder. Calves and bulls were the beasts sacrificed on the altar in the Jewish Temple. The motif was intended to remind a medieval viewer of Christ’s own sacrifice to God, in his suffering and death on the Cross. In St Luke’s gospel, in his account of the Last Supper, Jesus says ‘This is the chalice, the new testament in my blood, which shall be shed for you’ (Luke 22:20). St Luke is also shown holding an open book. This refers to his gospel, found in the New Testament of the Bible. So the image of book and bull link together: as Christ is the Word made Flesh (John 1:14), his flesh-and-blood suffering and sacrifice on the cross, in echo of what happened to the bull in the Old Temple of Judaism, creates a New Temple of Christianity, founded on the words of the Gospels. Luke wears a sky-blue robe, symbolising the eternal heavenly realm he now moves in.

Yet St Luke looks straight out at the viewer, meeting our eyes with a clear, direct gaze. He is the only figure in all the portrait panels to do so. Art historian Jiří Fajt suggests that the panel may be a self-portrait of Theodoric himself. St Luke was the patron saint of painters, thanks to the legend that he painted a portrait of the Virgin and Child. In the Middle Ages, many famous icons were thought to be ‘autograph works’ by St Luke, including the now-lost Panagia Hodegetria icon in Constantinople. It was believed to have been brought back from the Holy Land in the fifth century by Eudocia, the wife of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II.


St Luke paints the Madonna and Child

‘St Luke Painting the Virgin and Child’ – Maerten Van Heemskerck


Many guilds and early academies of painting in Europe were dedicated to St Luke for this reason. Theodoric himself was the head of the Brotherhood of St Luke in Prague. As his team of artists had worked flat-out over four years to paint and decorate the Holy Cross Chapel at Karlštejn, including finishing all 130 saintly portraits, Theodoric may have thought that he deserved to be permanently honoured in the Holy Cross Chapel in this way. And since Charles IV later rewarded Theodoric for what he described as ‘profound and masterly’ work at his court, the emperor may not have minded such a clever visual conceit.

Thanks to Laura for the insight into the art and design of the Holy Cross Chapel.  Get in touch via. the contact form or Twitter, and let the team know what you would like to hear about next!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *