This small painting shows Christ coming down from heaven to receive the soul of his mother, who lies close to death. He floats above her accompanied by angels, two of whom hold a white cloth in which to carry the Virgin’s soul to heaven.
The grieving apostles are administering the last rites to the Virgin. Saint John places a long, lit candle into her hands. Attached to it is a small disc with a cross: the Host (consecrated bread) which was offered to the dying. A saint who is probably Peter, dressed in white as a priest, prepares to scatter holy water over her.
Technical analysis shows a different plan: a large curtained bed instead of the view of the town. This earlier version seems to be based on a design Hugo van der Goes made when planning his famous Death of the Virgin (Groeningemuseum, Bruges).
This small painting shows the moment that Christ comes down from heaven to receive the soul of his mother. The Virgin Mary lies close to death, surrounded by the grieving apostles. Christ floats above her, ringed by golden light and accompanied by angels; two hold a white cloth in which to carry her soul to heaven. One also has a white lily, a symbol of the Virgin’s purity.
Although it shows an event from the biblical era, this is very much a medieval death scene. It takes place in what resembles a wealthy, almost palatial, late-medieval house. The Virgin lies on a large bed with red bedclothes, the floor is tiled and a table to the left holds various domestic items. A lighted lamp hangs from the ceiling; the rope with which to haul it up and down is tied to a hook. Through a mullioned window at the back we see a town square with people chatting and walking about, oblivious to the miraculous events taking place inside.
The Virgin is receiving the last rites from the apostles. Each is an individual figure who shows grief in his own way. Behind the bed, a blond, beardless man – almost certainly Saint John – leans over the dying Virgin, weeping. He places a taper – the long, lighted candle – into her hands. Attached to it is a small disc with a cross: the Host (the consecrated bread used in the Eucharist) which was offered to the dying. In front of the bed at the far right, a man in red, possibly Saint Paul, holds a rosary and squats on the floor, absorbed in his own grief. A bearded and balding saint, apparently Saint Peter, stands by the bed, with tears on his cheeks. He is dressed as a priest and prepares to scatter holy water over the Virgin by dipping an aspergillum (sprinkler) into the situla (bucket) held by his companion. Another apostle, small glasses perched on his nose, consults a book, prayer beads protruding from a slit in his robe. At the end of the bed, two hold a censer between them, one blowing on it to keep the incense alight. We can see a similar concern for the rituals of dying in The Dormition of the Virgin.
Technical analysis shows us that there was once a large curtained bed instead of the view of the town, the window was in a different place and the floor was wood. This earlier version seems to be based on a preliminary design van der Goes made when planning his famous Death of the Virgin (Groeningemuseum, Bruges). At a late stage, however, our artist painted over the original bed and introduced the apparition of Christ, and the illusion of perspective given by the tiled floor and the window. The painting’s appearance has also changed over time. The Virgin’s robe was once blue but has darkened. The panel itself has also been cut down around the sides. It once had an arched top; the unpainted edges at the bottom and the four top corners show the original size and shape.
Although we don't know the identity of the artist, his style, especially the varied and detailed faces and his interest in storytelling, suggests he was working on the border between the Low Countries and Germany in the early sixteenth century. The painting may have been made in or near the Duchy of Cleves.
Download an 800px wide, 72dpi copy of this image.
License and download a high resolution image for reproductions up to A3 size from the National Gallery Picture Library.
This image is licensed for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons agreement.
Examples of non-commercial use are:
The image file is 800 pixels on the longest side.
As a charity, we depend upon the generosity of individuals to ensure the collection continues to engage and inspire. Help keep us free by making a donation today.
You must agree to the Creative Commons terms and conditions to download this image.