And when the blessed Virgin Mary saw all the apostles assembled, she blessed our Lord, and sat in the midst of them where the lamps, tapers, and lights burned. And about the third hour of the night Jesus Christ came with sweet melody and song, with the orders of the angels, the companies of patriarchs, the assembly of martyrs, the convents of confessors, the carols of virgins. And before the bed of our blessed Lady the companies of all these saints were set in order and made sweet song and melody… And thus in the morning the soul issued out of the body and fled up in the arms of her son. And she was as far estranged from the pain of the flesh as she was from corruption of her body.
The Death of Virgin, also known as the Dormition of the Virgin, is recounted in Jacobus de Voragine’s hagiography of the lives of the Saints, Legenda aurea (circa 1260), and relates how the twelve apostles, dispersed throughout Europe and Asia Minor, were miraculously reunited at Mary's deathbed on Mount Sion, whereupon Mary passed from this life in a state of bliss and was received into heaven. Schongauer draws upon the iconography of earlier Flemish iterations of the subject, such as Petrus Christus’ Death of the Virgin, 1460-65 (Timken Museum of Art, San Diego) in his graphic masterpiece. In Petrus’ version, the body of the Virgin is depicted lying in a canopied bed, surrounded by disciples. Above, supported by angels Mary’s kneeling soul is welcomed by the figure of the glorified Christ, while to the far right through a window we see the conclusion of the story, an angel giving the Virgin’s girdle to Saint Thomas - proof that her body and soul now reside in heaven. In his Death of the Virgin Schongauer simplifies this narrative, excluding the celestial vision of the Virgin’s assumption and the return of her girdle, focusing instead on the very human scene of the aftermath of Mary’s death. Mary lies peacefully, propped up by cushions on a curtained bed, her eyes closed and her arms crossed, holding the lighted candle of the newly departed which has been placed in her hands by Saint John. The quiet composure of her body is contrasted with the agitated gestures and expressions of the disciples. Abandoning character types, Schongauer powerfully depicts their individual responses to her death, from quiet resignation and prayerful acceptance, to shocked denial and handwringing grief. The composition, with the densely packed middle ground emptying out in the foreground at the foot of the bed, has the dramatic effect of including the viewer as a witness to the drama. Schongauer balances the formalism of the High Gothic aesthetic, visible in the voluminous, stylised folds of clothing, bedding and drapery, with a new realism in his portrayal of human grief, calling to mind the emotional intensity of the Flemish school, and in particular Rogier van Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, circa 1435 (Museo del Prado). Nicholas Stogdon has commented that Schongauer’s great achievement was to find an equivalence in printmaking for this Flemish realism, 'which enabled him to convey the essentials of pictorial clarity and psychological atmosphere which remain the visual manifestation of the profundity of the religious life of this most religious age’ (N. Stogdon, p. 2).
In his Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architetti of 1550, Giorgio Vasari praised the Death of the Virgin of 'Bel Martino' as one of the artist’s most important prints, and its legacy in the history of Western Art is profound. Greatly admired by his contemporaries, it was extensively copied and disseminated beyond Germany, into Italy and Flanders, and may even have influenced Hugo van der Goes' famous painting of the same subject in Bruges. It certainly informed later representations of the subject in print by Albrecht Dürer, Hendrick Goltzius and Rembrandt van Rijn.
Schongauer’s virtuosity as an engraver is luminously apparent in this superb impression with intense contrasts and fine relief. Impressions of this quality and fine state of preservation almost never come the market.
Lehrs records only four impressions of the present, second state and mentions this impression from the Davidsohn collection in his census of sales. The present impression is superior to both the Slade and the Salting impression of the second state in the British Museum.