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Helsinus Preaching; The French Canon restored to Life
Dalmatian/Venetian
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These two scenes continue the stories on the previous panel, Helsinus saved from a Shipwreck and (below) A French Canon drowned by Devils. They come from a twelfth-century text written by English monk Eadmer, an early supporter of the idea that the Virgin was conceived without sin.

The top portion shows an English abbot called Helsinus preaching the celebration of the feast of the Virgin’s conception to a crowd gathered below his pulpit. The scene takes place outdoors, outside a church in the countryside. The fortress nestled in the hills beyond may be a visual shorthand for a small town.

The scene below shows a French canon being brought back to life, after he had been attacked and killed by devils. At the Virgin’s command, two angels place a baby into his mouth – this represents the canon’s soul, which the devils had taken. The Virgin made the canon promise to celebrate the feast of her conception as a way of giving thanks to her.

Key facts
Artist Dalmatian/Venetian
Full title Helsinus Preaching the Celebration of the Feast of the Conception and (below) The French Canon restored to Life
Group Altarpiece of the Virgin Mary
Date made about 1400
Medium and support Tempera on wood
Dimensions 63.8 x 26.8 cm
Inscription summary Inscribed
Acquisition credit Bequeathed by H.E. Luxmoore, 1927
Inventory number NG4250.5
Location in Gallery Not on display
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Altarpiece of the Virgin Mary

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This altarpiece is a unique example in the National Gallery’s collection of a work made by a late medieval artist working on both sides of the Adriatic, the sea between Italy and the Balkan coast. The picture may be one of the earliest painted representations of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (the Virgin being conceived without sin). This was a controversial idea in this period. It was not officially included in Catholic theology until the nineteenth century, but it was celebrated in the fifteenth century, on 8 December.

The central panel showing the Virgin and Child includes celestial bodies – the sun, moon and stars – that became associated with the Immaculate Conception. The left side panels show the story of the Virgin’s miraculous birth to a couple who could not have children; the right side panels shows two miracles of the Virgin.

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