Small altarpieces featuring scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and intended to promote personal piety, especially among women, were very popular in the late Middle Ages. Some, like this one, have a peculiar shape, with horizontally arranged compartments for nine alabaster relief carvings of scenes from Mary’s life, two of which have been lost. Three of these carvings present the Madonna as a model of good behaviour for women. Indirectly, the reliefs also document the new social situation of women in this period of history.
A case in point is the carving of the birth of Mary, in which Saint Anne is accompanied by three solicitous midwives. In this scene, Saint Anne is attended solely by women, denoting the existence of exclusively female domains.
In the second relief, Saint Anne is teaching the Virgin to read in the presence of her husband, Saint Joachim. The child Mary is being shown a book, and the fact that Saint Anne holds the tome in her left hand indicates that she is the girl’s instructor. The scene reflects the importance of reading as part of a cultured woman’s education in the late Middle Ages.
The third carving depicts the Nativity. Gazing adoringly at Baby Jesus is his Virgin Mother, whose figure is larger and more prominent than all the rest, including Saint Joseph. She is also the central axis of the composition, a sign of the growing social relevance of women on the cusp of the early modern era.