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Although it is set in a Renaissance town square, this small but busy painting shows the Dormition (literally the ‘falling asleep’, from the Latin dormire) and Assumption of the Virgin Mary. There is nothing in the Bible about the Virgin’s death, but in the medieval Catholic Church it was generally believed that Christ first carried her soul up to heaven and returned three days later for her body.
In the centre the body of the Virgin lies on an elaborate bier; Christ leans over her. Above, he carries her up to heaven in a giant golden glow. Angelic musicians crowd around the bier; others carrying candles process behind it. At the very front a man in black seems to be watching the whole show.
The Dormition was often presented as a medieval death scene. Here it looks more like a theatrical performance and might indeed reflect the kind of religious theatre that was common in fifteenth-century Italy.
It’s quite hard to follow all that’s going on in this small but busy painting. Although it is set in a Renaissance town square, this is the Dormition (literally the ‘falling asleep’, from the Latin dormire) and Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
In the centre, the body of the Virgin lies on an elaborate bier raised on four pillars and decorated with candles; Christ leans over her. Above, he carries her up to heaven in a giant golden glow. In the foreground are the Twelve Apostles, some leaning on a balustrade, stricken with grief, others pointing and looking up at the miraculous events behind. In front of the bier and with his back to us, a fair-haired apostle – presumably Saint John, to whom Christ had especially entrusted his mother and who was traditionally depicted as young and with fair hair – seems to be holding a lit taper in the air.
There is nothing about the death of the Virgin in the Bible and accounts of it in apocryphal texts differ in details. In the medieval Catholic Church it was generally believed that when the Virgin was about to die the apostles were miraculously gathered together. Christ first carried her soul up to heaven and then returned three days later for her body.
The Dormition was often presented as a medieval death scene, as in The Death of the Virgin by Hugo van der Goes and The Dormition of the Virgin. Here, however, the whole scene looks like a theatrical performance and might indeed reflect the kind of religious theatre that was found in fifteenth-century Italy. Angels playing trumpets, viols and other instruments crowd around the Virgin’s body; others stand on top of the canopy and on the balcony of the building on the left, or float in the air. More musical putti are crowded into the heavenly sphere around the floating figures; it looks like they are painted on a cloth suspended from the buildings. Angels carrying candles process around the back of the bier and at the very front a man in black seems to be watching the whole show.
The artist, Gerolamo da Vicenza, signed and dated the painting on the balustrade: HIERONIMVS. VINCENTINVS. / PINCSIT. / VENETIIS. 1488. (‘Gerolamo da Vicenza painted this (in) Venice, 1488.’).
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