Since the late Middle Ages the literary source most frequently consulted for images of the death of the Virgin Mary has been Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda Aurea. According to Jacobus, an angel appeared to Mary to announce that her death is nigh. At Mary's request the Apostles, who are preaching the gospel in every corner of the known world, are miraculously transported to Mount Zion to attend her deathbed. Apart from this literary source, it is clear that Rembrandt drew on Albrecht Dürer's Death of the Virgin (see lot 28 in Old Master Prints: An Important Private Collection), and it is known that he bought Dürer's series of the Life of the Virgin at auction in Amsterdam in February 1638.
It was Rembrandt's first large etching since The Angel appearing to the Shepherds (see lot 167), and was to present something of a problem, as he needed two attempts to complete it. He started the subject on a smaller plate, but then abandoned it, re-using the plate for The Three Trees (see lot 255) which still retains elements of the earlier work. The result is a wonderful mix of sketch and finely described detail, and whilst the focus of the composition is never in doubt, those who surround the bed are active participants in the unfolding drama rather than mere bystanders or a Greek chorus.
In an important deviation from most of the other treatments of this subject, Rembrandt's Mary is no blissfully smiling, youthful apparition, but clearly a sick old woman. It was probably no coincidence that during these years Saskia spent many of her days in bed, and numerous drawings attest to her husband's constant presence at her bedside.