When Philip became Bishop of Utrecht in 1517 (at that time a post with secular as well as religious power), Gossaert was his court painter and lived with him at his official residence. He executed many commissions for members of the Burgundian nobility as well as for royalty of other countries. He worked as a paintings restorer for Margaret of Austria and became one of the best portrait painters of his time.
Gossaert became absolutely adept at switching back and forth between an ‘Italianate’ style, and a distinctly Netherlandish one. He could invoke either mode according to the particular impact he wished to create and became very skilled at manipulating and fusing elements from different sources within a single composition. Such eclecticism, originality and innovativeness set him apart from his generation.
This ability to invoke, fuse and manipulate two different visual languages within a single composition brings us back to the painting at hand, in which the two ‘languages’ or genres at play are not Italian and Northern, but rather the separate categories of religious imagery and secular portraiture. To pose the question we began with again: is this indeed a Virgin and Child or is it a portrait of a woman with her young son? Might this, too, be an example of Gossaert expertly combining two very different pictorial modes to keep us guessing?