THE DEATH OF THE VIRGIN is styled in Byzantine and old Italian Art the Sleep of the Virgin, Il Sonno della Madonna; for it was an old superstition, subsequently rejected as heretical, that she did not really die after the manner of common mortals, only fell asleep till her resurrection. Therefore, perhaps, it is, that in the early pictures we have before us, not so much a scene or action, as a sort of mysterious rite ; it is not the Virgin dead or dying in her bed ; she only slumbers in preparation for her entombment ; while in the later pictures, we have a death-bed scene with all the usual dramatic and pathetic accessories.
In one sense or the other, the theme has been constantly treated, from the earliest ages of the revival of Art down to the seventeenth century.
In the most ancient examples which are derived from the Greek school, it is always represented with a mystical and solemn simplicity, adhering closely to the old legend, and to the formula laid down in the Greek Manual.
There is such a picture in the Wallerstein collection at Kensington Palace [now dispersed]. The couch or bier is in the centre of the picture, and Mary lies upon it wrapped in a veil and mantle with closed eyes and hands crossed over her bosom.. The twelve apostles stand round in attitudes of grief ; angels attend bearing tapers. Behind the extended form of the Virgin is the figure of Christ ; a glorious red seraph with expanded wings hovers above his head. He holds in his arms the soul of the Virgin in the likeness of a newborn child. On each side stand St. Dionysius the Areopagite, and St. Timothy, bishop of Ephesus, in episcopal robes. In front the archangel Michael bends forward to strike off the hands of the high priest Adonijah, who had attempted to profane the bier. (This last circumstance is rarely expressed, except in the Byzantine pictures ; for in the Italian legend the hands of the intruder wither and adhere to the bed or shrine.) In the picture just described, all is at once simple, and formal, and solemn, and supernatural; it is a very perfect example, in its way, of the genuine Byzantine treatment. There is a similar picture in the Christian Museum of the Vatican.
Another (the date about the first half of the fourteenth century, as I think) is curious from the introduction of the women. (Collection of Mr. Bromley of Wootten.) The Virgin lies on an’ embroidered sheet held reverently by angels; at the feet and at the head other angels bear tapers ; Christ receives the departing soul, which stretches out its arms ; St. John kneels in front, and St. Peter reads the service ; the other apostles are behind him, and there are three women. The execution of this curious picture is extremely rude, but the heads very fine. Cimabue painted the Death of the Virgin at Assisi. There is a beautiful example by Giotto, where two lovely angels stand at the head and two at the feet, sustaining the pall on which she lies ; another most exquisite by Angelico in the Florence Gallery; another most beautiful and pathetic by Taddeo Bartoli in the Palazzo Pubblico at Siena [One of the series on the Death of the Virgin, described in the Introduction].
The custom of representing Christ as standing by the couch or tomb of his mother, in the act of receiving her soul, continued down to the fifteenth century, at least with slight deviations from the original conception. The later treatment is quite different. The solemn mysterious sleep, the transition from one life to another became a familiar death-bed scene with the usual moving accompaniments. But even while avoiding the supernatural incidents, the Italians gave to the representation much ideal elegance; for instance, in the beautiful fresco by Ghirlandajo, in the series at S. Maria Novella, Florence.
In the old German school we have that homely matter-of-fact feeling and dramatic expression, and defiance of all chronological propriety, which belonged to the time and school. The composition by Albert Dürer, in his series of the Life of the Virgin, has great beauty and simplicity of expression, and in the arrangement a degree of grandeur and repose which has caused it to be often copied and reproduced as a picture, though the original form is merely that of a woodcut.’ In the centre is a bedstead with a canopy, on which Mary lies fronting the spectator, her eyes half closed. On the left of the bed stands St. Peter, habited as a bishop ; he places a taper in her dying hand ; another apostle holds the asperge with which to sprinkle her with holy water ; another reads the service. In the foreground is a priest bearing a cross, and another with incense ; and on the right, the other apostles in attitudes of devotion and grief.
Another picture by Albert Dürer, once in the Fries Gallery at Vienna, unites, in a most remarkable manner, all the legendary and supernatural incidents with the most intense and homely reality. It appears to have been painted for the Emperor Maximilian as a tribute to the memory of his first wife, the interesting Maria of Burgundy. The disposition of the bed is the same as in the woodcut, the foot towards the spectator. The face of the dying Virgin is that of the young duchess. On the right, her son, afterwards Philip of Spain and father of Charles V., stands as the young St. John, and presents the taper ; the other apostles are seen around, most of them praying; St. Peter, habited as bishop, reads from an open book (this is the portrait of George à Zlatkonia, bishop of Vienna, the friend and counsellor of Maximilian) ; behind him, as one of the apostles, Maximilian himself, with head bowed down as in sorrow. Three ecclesiastics are seen entering by an open door, bearing the cross, the censer, and the holy water. Over the bed is seen the figure of Christ; in his arms, the soul of the Virgin, in likeness of an infant with clasped hands ; and above all, in an opening glory and like a vision, her reception and coronation in heaven. Upon a scroll over her head, are the words, “Surge, propera, arnica mea; veni de Libano, veni ; coronaberis.” (Cant. iv. 8.) Three among the hovering angels bear scrolls, on one of which is in-scribed the text from the Canticles, ” Quae est ista quæ progreditur quasi aurora consurgens, pulchra ut luna, electa ut sol, terribilis ut castrorum acies ordinata ? ” (Cant. vi. 10) ; on another, ” Qum est ista quæ ascendit de deserto deliciis affluons super dilectum suum ? ” (Cant. viii. 5) ; and on the third, “Qum est ista quæ ascendit super dilectum suum ut virgula fumi ? ” (Cant. iii. 6.) This picture bears the date 1518. If it be true, as is, indeed, most apparent, that it was painted by order of Maximilian nearly forty years after the loss of the young wife he so tenderly loved, and only one year before his own death, there is something very touching in it as a memo-rial. The ingenious and tender compliment implied by making Mary of Burgundy the real object of those mystic texts consecrated to the glory of the MATER DEI, verges, perhaps, on the profane ; but it was not so intended ; it was merely that combination of the pious and the poetical and the sentimental which was one of the characteristics of the time, in literature, as well as in Art.
The picture by Jan Scorel, one of the great ornaments of the Boisserée Gallery (Munich), is remarkable for its intense reality and splendor of color. The heads are full of character ; that of the Virgin in particular, who seems, with half-closed eyes, in act to breathe away her soul in rapture. The altar near the bed, having on it figures of Moses and Aaron, is, however, a serious fault and incongruity in this fine painting.
I must observe that Mary is not always dead or dying ; she is sometimes preparing for death, in the act of prayer at the foot of her couch, with the apostles standing round, as in a very fine picture by Martin Schaffner (Munich), where she kneels with a lovely expression, sustained in the arms of St. John, while St. Peter holds the gospel open before her. Sometimes she is sitting up in her bed, and reading from the Book of the Scripture, which is always held by St. Peter.
In a picture by Cola dell’ Amatrice, the Death of the Virgin is treated at once in a mystical and dramatic style. Enveloped in a dark blue mantle spangled with golden stars, she lies extended on a couch ; St. Peter, in a splendid scarlet cope as bishop, reads the service ; St. John, holding the palm, weeps bitterly. In front, and kneeling before the couch or bier, appear the three great Dominican saints as witnesses of the religious mystery ; in the centre, St. Dominick ; on the left, St. Catherine of Siena; and on the right, St. Thomas Aquinas. In a compartment above is the Assumption. (Rome, Capitol.)
Among the later Italian examples, where the old legendary accessories are generally omitted, there are some of peculiar elegance. One by Ludovico Caracci, another by Domenichino, and a third by Carlo Maratti, are treated, if not with much of poetry or religious sentiment, yet with great dignity and pathos.
I must mention one more, because of its history and celebrity : Caravaggio, of whom it was said that he always painted like a ruffian, because he was a ruffian, was also a genius in his way, and for a few months he became the fashion at Rome, and was even patronized by some of the higher ecclesiastics. He painted for the church of La Scala in Trastevere a picture of the death of the Virgin, wonderful for the intense natural expression, and in the same degree grotesque from its impropriety. Mary, instead of being decently veiled, lies extended with long scattered hair ; the strongly-marked features and large proportions of the figure are those of a woman of the Trastevere. The face has a swollen look, and it was said that his model had been a common woman whose features were swelled by intoxication. The apostles stand around ; one or two of them I must use the word blubber aloud : Peter thrusts his fists into his eyes to keep back the tears ; a woman seated in front cries and sobs ; nothing can be more real, nor more utterly vulgar. The ecclesiastics for whom the picture was executed were so scandalized that they refused to hang it up in their church. It was purchased by the Duke of Mantua, and, with the rest of the Mantuan Gallery, came afterwards into the possession of our unfortunate Charles I. On the dispersion of his pictures it found its way into the Louvre, where it now is. It has been often engraved.