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Rembrandt’s Death of the Virgin


The painting


The Death of the Virgin (41.1 x 31.2 cm)

Etching and drypoint on laid paper. Made in 1639 by Rembrandt.

National Gallery of Canada.

The likeness of Eleazar is very similar to the facial features of figures in two other paintings attributed to Van der Weyden: the Joseph portrait associated with the Magdalen Reading, and the Kneeling King in the St Columba Altarpiece. While it can be said that these may simply be stock portraits used by the Van der Weyden workshop, it is probably more likely that they are based on the features of one man in particular, Jan van Eyck, especially as the paintings show support to his identity in other ways. The three likenesses are shown below.


Three faces of Jan van Eyck in Rogier van der Weyden paintings.

left to right:

The Water of Bethlehem,

St Joseph (Magdalen Reading),

St Columba Altarpiece.

Another figure in the Water of Bethlehem painting can also be linked to works attributed to Van der Weyden. The pose of the ‘priestly’ figure with his hands on the shoulder of ‘Van Eyck’ is not dissimilar to the the stance taken by the man portrayed in the dual role of evangelists Luke and Mark in the St Columba Altarpiece, with his hand on the shoulder of King David. Another painting of Van der Weyden, St Luke Drawing the Virgin, shows a strong similarity between the facial features of Luke and that of the man in the Bethlehem Water painting. It is said that the depiction of St Luke drawing the Virgin is a self portrait of Van der Weyden. If that is so, then it is more than probable that Van der Weyden is also portraying himself in the guise of St Luke in his Bethlehem Water painting. Two artists in one painting. Is there a third – or even more?


Roger van der Weyden as St Luke:

The Water of Bethlehem,

St Luke Drawing the Virgin.

The likeness to the bearded King David is also echoed in other paintings of Van der Weyden but if it is to be matched to any painter, then who? Again, Van der Weyden is the man providing the clues. His visual depiction of King David refers to the painter he was supposedly apprenticed to – Robert Campin. So in the Bethlehem Waters painting we are presented with the three innovators of Early Netherlandish painting and eventually a group of artists referred to as the Flemish Primitives. The two other figures in the background are also likely to be painters from that period.

Robert Campin as King David.

Water of Bethlehem,

St Columba Altarpiece

Robert Campin (self portrait?)

Mérode Altarpiece

The Met Museum, New York

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