The Dormition of the Virgin
Pieter Bruegel the elder ( [Breda c.1525 -30?] - Brussels 1569)
In her final moments, the Virgin is shown receiving a lighted taper from a figure wearing a chasuble – probably Saint Peter. Mary Magdalene smoothes her pillows, whilst a man, who may be Saint John sleeps in a chair near the fire. The crucifix propped up on a pillow at the end of the bed must have been an extraordinarily harrowing devotional aid at the Virgin’s own hour of death, but would, at the same time, have brought the promise of Salvation. In earlier versions of this subject, the mourners had always been limited to the apostolic number of twelve. The subject has been developed by Bruegel, and turned into a natural, or domestic event, to which numerous men and women are admitted. The picture once belonged to the famous geographer, Abraham Ortelius (1527-98). It was owned later by Rubens and is, in all probability, the Bruegel listed in the inventory taken after Rubens's death in 1641.
Oil painting on oak panel (grisaille), The Dormition of the Virgin by Pieter Bruegel the elder (Bruegel 1528 - Brussels 1569), signed, extremely small, and painted in brown pigment, located lower right corner of the chest in front of the Virgin’s bed: BRVEGEL. The interior of a room at night. The Virgin sits up in bed and receives a lighted taper from (?) Saint Peter, who stands right, wearing a chasuble, amongst a group of kneeling Disciples; possibly the Magdalene, opposite, smoothes her pillows; many other figures crowd towards the bed from the left side of the room and from the door in the background; in the foreground a man who may be Saint John sleeps in a chair near the fire; at the foot of the bed, where a crucifix is laid upon a pillow, a kneeling monk rings the passing bell, and in the centre foreground a bench, chair and round table are covered with an assortment of plates and cups. The room is unevenly lit from four sources; the fire, the torches placed high up on a carved wooded frieze between the bed and the door, a candle on the table and the taper held by Saint Peter.
Glück (Burlington Magazine) describes the iconographic novelty of the composition: whereas previously the mourners had always been limited to the apostolic number of twelve – with St Peter handing the Virgin a candle and the addition of Mary Magdalen plumping the Virgin’s pillows - the subject is now treated by Bruegel as a natural event, to which numerous men an women are admitted (see the verses accompanying engraving). Grossman (1952) refers to the death of the Virgin as a phenomenon in which all the righteous take part. He expands this (1955), mentioning as the source of the composition the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voraigne. In the account given in an apocryphal book of St. John the Evangelist, Christ with the patriarchs, martyrs, confessors and holy virgins are described as being present at the death of the Virgin, where the Apostles are already assembled, thus conflating the death of the Virgin with Assumption. Grossmann suggests that St. John is shown experiencing a vision and isolated as the recorder of the miracle. This interpretation does make sense, but Bruegel does not appear to be influenced by the supernatural features of this part of the story, and his interpretation of the scene is factual enough for it to be questioned whether he had this special mystical significance in mind. It may therefore be, as Glück suggested, that Bruegel is depicting the scene straightforwardly and the St. John, having fallen asleep in exhaustion at the critical moment, is a poignant motif added by the artist. The throng to the left of the deathbed are possibly supplicants asking for succour, rather than the heavenly throng of patriarchs and martyrs as proposed by Grossmann. A figure behind St Peter is depicted holding the crux immissa (with two horizontal rods), representative of either St Philip – who is least likely to have been singled out – or St James the Less, the first Patriarch of Jerusalem, who in some sources is described as Christ’s brother. The crucifix propped up on a pillow at the end of the bed, has escaped comment by most commentators, and whilst it must have been an extraordinarily harrowing devotional aid at the Virgin’s own hour of death, it would, at the same time, have brought the promise of Salvation. Neither Tolnay nor Michel regard the picture as autograph. The former believes the handling to be uncharacteristic, and is troubled by the error of perspective in the chair, which has been corrected in the engraving (see Grossmann, Burlington Magazine, p.223, n.16, for a refutation of this point). According to Michel, the treatment of the light indicates that the picture may be a later copy. Muller also concedes that it is possible that Rubens owned a lost original of which the Upton House picture is a copy. The NG technical report notes that only a limited amount of underdrawing was revealed by infrared reflectography. It appears to have been applied with brushes and there are several interesting changes: the woman plumping the Virgin’s pillow was drawn to our right of the painted figure and her right arm was drawn and reserved lower; the cat’s rump was drawn and reserved slightly to the right of the painted animal; in the curtain behind the Virgin, underdrawn lines may perhaps show Bruegel conceiving a smaller bed seen in a different perspective; and the bed curtains behind St Peter were evidently painted in slightly different positions and were differently lit. Tolnay writes that the inspiration for the composition is derived from a miniature, La Mort, in the Grimani Breviary, painted by Simon Bening and his workshop between 1505 and 1510 (repd. by Tolnay, pl. 153 and Gibson, pl.94). Schongauer’s influential engraving of the Death of the Virgin (Lehrs, Geschichte und Kritische Katalog, 1925, vol.V, no.16) may also have proved a source for the group of Apostles around the bed. Grisailles are extremely rare amongst Bruegel’s oeuvre, although another, of Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery, can be found in the Princes Gate Collection at the Courtauld Institute (see their 1981 catalogue, no.9, pp.7-8).
Abraham Ortelius (1527-98),1590; Isabella Brant (1591-1626), first wife of Sir Peter Paul Rubens, 1641; Jean-Baptiste Anthoine, Antwerp, 1691; Robert Langton Douglas (1864-1951), circa 1930; Lord Lee of Fareham (1868-1947), 1930, from whom it was acquired by Lord Bearsted the same year; given with Upton House to the National Trust by Walter Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted (1882 – 1948), in 1948, shortly before his death
Upton House, The Bearsted Collection (National Trust)
Marks and inscriptions
Verso: written in ink: ouden (?) B[r]eugh[e]l followed by a series of illegible marks (numbers?)
Makers and roles
Pieter Bruegel the elder ( [Breda c.1525 -30?] - Brussels 1569) , artist
Bruegel in Black and White: Three Grisailles Reunited, The Courtauld Institute, London, 2016, no.1 New Light on Old Masters, Squash Court Gallery, 2013
Constable 1930 W.G. Constable, ‘Northern Painting in the Lee Collection’, International Studio, March 1930, pp.41, repd., 43 Glück 1930 G. Glück, ‘A newly-discovered Painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder’, Burlington Magazine, LVI, 1930, pp.284-86, repd.; Popham 1931 A.E. Popham, ‘Pieter Brueghel and Abraham Ortelius’, Burlington Magazine, LIX, 1931, pp.184-8 Michel 1931 E. Michel, Brueghel, Paris, 1931, pp.85-86, pl.58 Glück, 1932 G. Glück, Brueghel’s Gemälde, Vienna, 1932, p.62, no.16 repd. Tolnay 1935 C. de Tolnay, Pierre Brueghel L’Ancien, Brussels, 1935, pp.51-2, 92, no.38, pl.148 Friedländer 1937 Max J. Friedländer, Die altniederländische malerei, 14 vols., Berlin and Leiden, 1924-37 (Early Netherlandish Painting, 1967-76), vol. XIV, pp.29, 60, no.23, pl. XXIII; Grossmann 1952 F. Grossmann, ‘Brueghel’s Woman taken in Adultery and other Grisailles’, Burlington Magazine, XCIV, 1952, pp.221 ff. (passim), repd., p.227, no.6; Bruegel in Black and White: Three Grisailles Reunited (Ed. Karen Serres), The Courtauld Gallery, London, 4th February to 8th May 2016, Cat. 1, pp. 18