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The Death of the Virgin

The Death of the Virgin

Hugo van der Goes (ca. 1440-1482). Groeninge Museum – Bruges. 1470-1472.

The Death of the Virgin

Michelangelo Merisi called Il Caravaggio (1570-1610). Musée du Louvre- Paris. 1605-1606.

Hugo van der Goes

In Hugo van der Goes’ painting of the ‘Death of the Virgin’, all is desolate. Great is the sadness because the last link with Jesus and she who was his mother is gone. Suddenly there is only emptiness and loneliness. What can the apostles do, now that there is no bond anymore with their teacher, no hold? They will have to do with what they have had until now, the book is closed and all is written, nothing new will be added. So, a red-clad James deposes the book in which all is told and finished now. But a candle can be lit, the candle of new life to come. Even if the message remained incomplete, very inadequate, with so many questions unanswered, the light will continue.

These are the scene and the emotions van der Goes has expressed in his picture. Van der Goes was still very much a Flemish Primitive of the fifteenth century, but the Gothic era had given way to something new. Something very individual had started to sprout from within van der Goes. Personal emotions of real humans could be shown in religious paintings and accepted by the clergy. Van der Goes was probably the most modern of the northern painters of his era. We sense and know that he lived intensely into his scenes. More than to flatter or to show his skills, van der Goes painted from his inner soul out, in sympathy with the suffering of extraordinary people that were still humans.

The ‘Death of the Virgin’ was probably made for the Dunes Abbey at Coxyde on the Belgian coast. The ruins of the abbey were excavated some years ago and can be visited now. The picture was made around 1470, when van der Goes was around forty years old. Van der Goes would not live much longer. He died in 1482 or 1483 in the Red Cloister near Brussels where he had retired after having had fits of folly. Van der Goes lived too much inside his paintings. The pictures and the thinking on his scenes must have eroded his sensibility. Such extreme sadness, loneliness of forlorn people as shown in his ‘Death’ must have been well acquainted to him.

A soft blue light pervades the whole picture. The colours are cool, yet light and shadows are well used. The cool colours are in strange contrast with the expressions on the faces of the apostles, which indicate all but absence of emotions. This conflict makes it even more immediate for us to apprehend the feelings of the characters. The painting is filled with emotional tension. Look at the hands: they all are in the direction of Mary, all differently painted in various movements. The hands are so expressive in their touch of the Virgin. Yet these hands never do really touch, they dare not go so far. This also is a sign of the extreme respect of the apostles and of the incomprehension of what has happened.

According to one of the tales of the ‘Golden Legend’, Mary longed to be again with her son G41 . The archangel Michael visited her and foretold her death in three days. Mary asked to see her kin and the apostles before she died. Which is why most of the scenes of the ‘Death of the Virgin’ depict her surrounded by the apostles. After her death, Mary was only sleeping during the three days until her Resurrection. Because of this, Mary is usually shown as if serenely asleep on the deathbed. The apostles, who were scattered around the world, were caught up by angels and brought in clouds to the home of the Virgin. Mary was about fourteen years old when she conceived, fifteen when she gave birth. She lived for thirty-three years with Jesus and survived him for about twelve years. She died around sixty years of age G49 . The ‘Golden Legend’ further told that there were three virgins at hand who removed Mary’s robe in order to wash her body. The body immediately shone with such effulgence that although it could be touched and bathed, it could not be seen. The light shone as long as it took the virgins to perform their task G49 .

The Virgin lies on her deathbed; she is so very pale. The Virgin already has the vision of her son amidst the angels. She is serene and her face shows the expectancy of joining Jesus. Her face is the only one not to be so sad; she really is trying to grasp with her closed eyes the vision of the heavens. The apostles surround her in a circle, alternating Mary’s colours: blue, red of John her beloved son, blue, red of James, green, red again. Saint Peter, the first Pope, dressed in white, and although so human himself, seems to be the only one to keep his head cool. It is he who lights the candle: after Jesus and Mary he will lead the way.

This is one of the most remarkable paintings of the Flemish Primitives. It is remarkable by its harmony of colours and structure, by the loveliness of details, by the softness of the movements, by the liveliness of the characters, by the depiction of emotions so different and so the same in the expressions of each individual face. And yet the picture remains solidly in the tradition of northern painting. The picture resembles the delicacy of a Fra Angelico, but with emotions so strongly present that it stands sharply out among the pictures of its age.

Van der Goes worked in Gent since 1465, in Bruges since 1468. He was known in Bruges by the Portinari family who were the representatives of the Medici of Florence. The Portinari commissioned him paintings. He left Gent in 1473, shortly after having made the ‘Death of the Virgin’ and withdrew in Rouge-Cloître near Brussels in 1477, where his brother was a friar. He died there some six years later, in 1482 or 1483.


Il Caravaggio has painted a very dramatic picture of the ‘Death of the Virgin’, so different from van der Goes’ painting. Mary did not die peacefully in Caravaggio’s vision. She probably passed away suddenly, while she was working in the fields. She was thrown hurriedly on her bed. Her outstretched arm in a strange way reminds of the Crucifixion of her son. Mary was still a young woman near her death, though it is a balding, broken and old Joseph who weeps abjectly over her. Other elder men are standing to the side of Joseph. The men are all to the left, the women are to themselves on the right. This is where painters traditionally depicted the genders. One younger lady is knelt close to the bed; another stands behind Mary. The two women are also the same Mary, when she was young. And maybe Il Caravaggio showed already how Mary would be when resurrected because the standing woman is dressed in the traditional blue gown of the Virgin.

Two oblique lines form two solid triangles in the painting. One line goes diagonally from Mary’s face over Joseph’s head to the other men, the apostles. John, the given son of Mary, is at her feet. Another steeper line goes over the knelt woman to the standing woman. Thus, there is a male line and triangle, and a female one. Another line still runs from the head of John over Joseph to the standing women. All the triangles have the lower edge of the frame as their base. These triangles of colour areas are thus very close to earth. Mary indeed is drawn down to the earth. Her bed and body are kept low in the picture too. In order to fill the frame, Il Caravaggio has painted a heavy red curtain above the scene. The red increases the feelings of drama and passion, even of violence in the scene.

Caravaggio was one of the first painters to discover the dramatic effects that the contrasts between light and shadows could make in a painting. He exploited these effects as no other painter had done before him, breaking entirely with Gothic and even Renaissance fashion of not showing the shadows at all in religious pictures in order to give a sense of the supernatural to the scenes. This breaking with tradition is also apparent in the scene itself: this is no mystic, heavenly scene. It was a death of a peasant woman. It was a sudden death, and Mary is surrounded by common folk. It was a death in times when the church was young, when the apostles had only very few followers and yet the apostles were growing old. Only the presence of these men forms the solemnity of the scene. Caravaggio let a shaft of light fall from the upper left over the bald head of the apostles on Mary’s face and body, onto the bent back of the kneeling woman on the lower right. Thus, Mary’s face is enlightened, precluding her Assumption. Caravaggio shows the death as a departing for a higher destiny.

This painting of Caravaggio was commissioned around 1605 for the church of Santa Maria della Scala del Trastevere in Rome. Trastevere was the popular suburb of Rome. The panel was not installed in the church however, for it aroused a scandal to the Catholic clergy by its realism. It was exposed to the Romans however in 1607 and became popular and loved. Pieter Paul Rubens, the Flemish Baroque painter admired it much and urged the Duke of Mantua to buy the painting. Still later, having passed several hands, it was acquired by the Sun King of France Louis XIV F8 .

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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