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Helsinus saved from a Shipwreck; A French Canon drowned
Dalmatian/Venetian
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These scenes come from a text written in twelfth century by an English monk called Eadmer, an early supporter of the idea that the Virgin was conceived without sin; they conclude in Helsinus Preaching the Celebration of the Feast of the Conception and (below) The French Canon restored to Life.

The upper scene shows a violent shipwreck. Devils tear at the sails and break the mast. The English abbot Helsinus prays for salvation, while the crew throws excess cargo into the waves. A bishop saint appears; he stands upon the water and holds a scroll bearing words in Latin: ‘You will escape death if you celebrate the Feast of the Conception of the Virgin on the sixth day before the Ides of December.’

In the lower scene, devils drown a French canon in the river Seine as he returns from an adulterous liaison. He lies in the water and two devils remove his soul from his mouth. At this same moment the Virgin, surrounded by angels, intervenes: at her command, an angel swoops down.

Key facts
Artist Dalmatian/Venetian
Full title Helsinus saved from a Shipwreck and (below) A French Canon drowned by Devils
Group Altarpiece of the Virgin Mary
Date made about 1400
Medium and support Tempera on wood
Dimensions 64 x 27.5 cm
Inscription summary Inscribed
Acquisition credit Bequeathed by H.E. Luxmoore, 1927
Inventory number NG4250.4
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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