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The Death of the Virgin

The Death of the Virgin
oil on panel
28 7⁄8 x 22 1⁄4 in. (73.4 x 56.5 cm.)
Rendón collection, Tunja (according to a wax seal on the reverse).
Anonymous sale; Dorotheum, Vienna, 12 September 1984 (=3rd day), lot 631, as 'Lower Rhine (Münster), end of 15th century', when acquired by the grandfather of the present owner.
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This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

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Lot Essay

With characteristic attention to ornament, vivid colouring and stylised figural groups, this panel bears many of the familiar hallmarks of early-sixteenth century Antwerp painting. Indeed, through the composition of the interior setting and the treatment of the features of several figures, the picture shows an affinity with the work of leading painters in the city, including Jan de Beer and the Master of 1518, and evidences the painter’s clear awareness of the artistic currents of the first decades of the sixteenth century. The Death of the Virgin was not an especially widespread iconography, but contemporary representations of the subject from Antwerp, notably that attributed to the Master of Amiens, now in the Mayer van den Bergh museum, show a clear correspondence with the present picture.
The scene represents the moment of the Virgin’s death as She receives the last rites, surrounded by the twelve Apostles, who have each been miraculously transported from across the world to be present at Her bedside in accordance with Her wishes. Depictions of the Virgin’s final moments typically relied on the description recounted in Jacobus de Voragine’s popular Legenda Aurea. The subject of the present panel might more properly, in fact, be classed as the scene of the dormition, rather than death, of the Virgin. Voragine’s text described how, at this moment, Mary’s soul left Her body on earth and ‘flew to the arms of Our Saviour’. This was subsequently prepared for burial and placed by the Apostles in a tomb. On the third day following the burial, those gathered round the sepulchre were greeted by a vision of Christ, ‘with a multitude of angels’, who reunited His mother’s soul with her body and transported both up to sit beside Him in heaven (J. de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, W.G. Ryan, ed., Princeton, 1993, II, pp. 80-2).
The subject in Netherlandish painting of the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries was heavily indebted to the work of Hugo van der Goes, notably his famous panel painted in the mid- to late-1470s (Bruges, Groeningemuseum). Van der Goes was evidently interested in the subject and is thought to have experimented repeatedly with the structure of his final picture, either producing other painted versions of the subject, or a protracted series of working drawings through which he developed his final composition. These studies, one of which survives in a workshop drawing now in the Herzog Anton-Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig, were themselves highly influential and provided the basis for many treatments of the scene by later Netherlandish painters.
Elements of van der Goes' composition are abundantly clear in the present picture, demonstrating just how far the master’s influence spread in Flanders and how lasting the impact of his distinct and progressive style was. As with Hugo’s Death of the Virgin, the artist of the present panel has paid careful attention to articulating the Apostles' individual reactions to the event. Some figures seem unmistakably to rely on Hugo’s prototype: the Apostle crouching beside the far side of the bed, for example, with his chin almost resting on the mattress, finds a very close parallel with the corresponding figure in the Bruges painting, shown similarly hunched by the bedside in front of Saint Peter.
As well as Hugo van der Goes, the present painter was evidently aware of the treatment of the subject in printed images. Notably, the inclusion of the large standing candlestick and the scalloped canopy, here quoted almost directly from the widely disseminated treatments of the scene by Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Dürer. Also following these examples, the painter chose not to include the figure of Christ receiving the soul of the Virgin into heaven, a detail depicted with brilliant effect in Hugo van der Goes’ work. Instead, the focus remains on the earthly, and the reactions of the gathered Apostles.
We are grateful to Dr. Valentine Hendricks and Dr. Sacha Zdanov for their assistance and helpful discussion on the work. Peter van den Brink, to whom we are also grateful, notes the compositional borrowing of Jan Joest van Kalkar’s altarpiece at St. Nicolai's Church, Kalkar, and believes the artist may have been from that area and had first-hand experience of Jan Joest's altarpiece.

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