The Virgin is shown dead, surrounded by the apostles, and received into heaven by her son Christ. Saints Lawrence and Stephen stand to either side. The landscape is barren on the left, green on the right, contrasting death to life. Painted in 1484 for the Certosa at Padua, the work had a frame decorated at the top with a carved figure of Saint Michael. From a successful family of painters in Murano, Bartolomeo Vivarini offered Venetian clients a more conservative style than that of Bellini—one influenced by the linearity of Mantegna.
Bartolomeo Vivarini belonged to one of the most distinguished family workshops in Venice, renowned for the production of altarpieces. While his brother Antonio remained tied to the Gothic tradition, Bartolomeo gradually opened up to the novelties introduced by the Renaissance language.
Contrary to what has sometimes been thought, this is not the altarpiece mentioned by Giovambatista Rossetti in his Descrizione delle pitture, sculture, ed architetture di Padova (1765) as in a chapel of the Certosa in Padua, signed by Bartolomeo Vivarini and inscribed with the date 1475. The painting seen by Rossetti is an earlier work by the Venetian artist, the Virgin Enthroned with Saints, now in the church of Saint Anthony, Veli Lošinj, Croatia. Archival research has demonstrated, instead, that the Metropolitan's painting was commissioned by the Carthusians for the altar of Saint Lawrence on March 15, 1484, and that Vivarini promised to execute it within eight months. The two paintings, similar in composition and dimensions, were probably conceived as twin altarpieces facing each other (Sambin 1964).
The style of The Death of the Virgin is representative of Bartolomeo's provincial later period when the influence of his early training with Squarcione, the famous Paduan artist, re-emerged. During the 1480s, in fact, his work became more linear and schematic as visible in the hard modeling of the figures and the use of strident color (Zeri and Gardner 1973). The composition follows precisely the account of the event by the thirteenth-century writer Jacobus de Voragine in the Golden Legend. The Virgin is represented on her death bed surrounded by the eleven apostles who have gathered together from different parts of the world to bury the body of God's mother and to assist in her assumption. Jesus, sitting on his heavenly throne, welcomes the Virgin's soul in the form of a little figure and both are carried away by angels. The two saints on the sides, the proto-martyrs Stephen and Lawrence, do not engage in the narrative but are intended to act as intercessors between the viewer and the sacred scene.
Inscription: Signed and dated (bottom center, on cartellino): [OPVS FAC]TVM·VENETIIS PE / [R BARTH]OLOMEVM·VIVA / [RINVM DE] MVRIANO.148
chapel of San Lorenzo, Certosa, Padua (suppressed 1774); John Strange, Venice, later London (by 1775; sold to Bathurst); Henry Bathurst, 2nd Earl Bathurst, Staffordshire (in 1781; his anonymous sale, Christie's, London, June 2, 1781, no. 11, as by De Muriano, 1489, bought in); sale, Phillips, London, April 14, 1809, no. 56, as "The Death of the Virgin, a curious specimen of the early period of the art," by Giotto, for £30; [Richard Davies, London, until 1811; his sale, Phillips, London, January 31, 1811, no. 54, as "The Death of the Virgin, a rare specimen of the early period of the Arts, in fine preservation, the name of the painter in [sic] on a label at the bottom of the picture," by Giotto, for £21, to Forster]; sale, Squibb, London, April 8, 1812, no. 70, as "The Death of the Virgin, painted in 1330, in high preservation," by Giotto, for £26.5; Sir Gregory Osborne Page Turner, Baronet, Battlesden Park, Battlesden, Bedfordshire (until 1824; his sale, Christie's, Battlesden Park, June 8, 1824, no. 28, as Giotto or early Italian School, for 18 gns. to Pinney); [Bernard Pinney, London, from 1824; ?sold to Rutley]; [John Lewis Rutley, London, until 1825; sale, Christie's, London, April 29, 1825, no. 59, as "The Death of the Virgin, surrounded by Apostles and Saints; a very curious Altar-Piece," by Giotto, for £28.17 to Pinney]; [Bernard Pinney, London, from 1825]; John Rushout, 2nd Baron Northwick, Thirlestane House, Cheltenham (by 1857–d. 1859; cat., 1858, no. 799, as by Giotto; his estate sale, Phillips, Thirlestane House, August 9, 1859, no. 894, as by Giotto, for £63 to Pearce); [Pearce, London, 1859]; William Cox (1859–61; his sale, Foster's, London, March 27, 1861, no. 164, as by Giotto); William Graham, London (by 1882–d. 1885; inv., 1882, no. 268, as by B. Vivarini; his estate sale, Christie's, London, April 8, 1886, no. 259, for £220.10.0 to Murray); [Murray, London, from 1886]; Charles Butler, London (by 1894–d. 1910; his estate sale, Christie's, London, May 25, 1911, no. 112, for £630 to Agnew); [Agnew, London, 1911; sold to Murray]; Charles Fairfax Murray, London (from 1911); [L'Art Ancien S.A., Lugano, in about 1924]; Philip Lehman, New York (until 1925; sold half share to Duveen); Philip Lehman, New York, and Duveen, Paris, London, and New York (1925–at least 1931); Philip Lehman, New York (until d. 1947); his son, Robert Lehman, New York (1947–50)
Manchester. Art Treasures Palace. "Art Treasures of the United Kingdom," May 5–October 17, 1857, no. 66 (as by Giotto, lent by Lord Northwick).
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," January–March 1885, no. 206 (as by Bartolomeo Vivarini, lent by William Graham).
London. New Gallery. "Venetian Art," 1894–95, no. 44 (lent by Charles Butler).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Venetian Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," May 1–September 2, 1974, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art in Renaissance Venice, 1400–1515: Paintings and Drawings from the Museum's Collections," November 8, 2011–February 5, 2012, no catalogue.
Giovanni Maria Sasso. Autobiography. n.d., pp. 170–72 [Museo Civico, Padua], reads the date on the inscription as 1499; erroneously believes that it was the painting described by Rossetti [see Notes]; states that the picture remained with him for some time for cleaning after the suppression of the Certosa of Padua, and that it was then sold to the Ministro Britanica [John Strange], who sent it to London in 1775.
Giannantonio Moschini. Guida per l'isola di Murano. 2nd ed. Venice, 1808, pp. 124ff. [see Ref. Zeri and Gardner 1973], refers to it as by Bartolomeo Vivarini, reports that it had been sold to John Strange and taken to London, and says it had been cleaned and restored by Giovanni Maria Sasso, who read the date as 1499.
Ignazio Neümann-Rizzi. "Elogio accademico dei Vivarini, primi padri della veneziana pittura." Discorsi letti nella R. Accademia di Belle Arti in Venezia. Venice, 1816, pp. 50, 89–90, attributes it to Bartolomeo and dates it 1499.
W. Burger [Théophile Thoré]. Trésors d'art exposés à Manchester en 1857. Paris, 1857, pp. 22–23 [reprinted as "Trésors d'art en Angleterre," Brussels, 1860, with same pagination], questions the attribution to Giotto; reports the date inscribed on the painting as 1330.
[Henry Davies]. A Catalogue of the Pictures in the Galleries of Thirlestane House, Cheltenham. Cheltenham, 1858, no. 799, as by Giotto.
J[oseph]. A[rcher]. Crowe and G[iovanni]. B[attista]. Cavalcaselle. A History of Painting in North Italy: Venice, Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Ferrara, Milan, Friuli, Brescia, from the Fourteenth to the Sixteenth Century. London, 1871, vol. 1, pp. 48–49, reject the attribution to Giotto; associate it with the picture described by Moschini [see Ref. 1808] and call it a late work by Bartolomeo.
Catalogue of Pictures, Ancient and Modern, 35 Grosvenor Place. 1882, no. 268 [see letter of September 27, 1982 in archive file], as by B. Vivarini.
[George Redford]. "The Graham Collection." Times (April 12, 1886), p. 6 [reprinted in George Redford, "Art Sales," London, 1888, vol. 1, p. 434].
George Redford. Art Sales. London, 1888, vol. 2, pp. 233, 262.
G[eorg]. Gronau. "Correspondance d'Angleterre: l'art vénitien à Londres, à propos de l'exposition de la New Gallery." Gazette des beaux-arts, 3rd ser., 13 (February 1895), p. 163, notes that it is signed by Bartolomeo, reporting the inscribed date as 1480.
Tancred Borenius. "Three Paintings by Bartolomeo Vivarini." Burlington Magazine 19 (July 1911), p. 197, pl. II, refers to it as "one of those coarse and perfunctory paintings which were produced 'en masse' in the workshop of Bartolomeo Vivarini"; discusses the date.
J[oseph]. A[rcher]. Crowe and G[iovanni]. B[attista]. Cavalcaselle. A History of Painting in North Italy: Venice, Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Ferrara, Milan, Friuli, Brescia, from the Fourteenth to the Sixteenth Century. Ed. Tancred Borenius. 2nd ed. [1st ed. 1871]. London, 1912, vol. 1, p. 49 n. 3, Borenius notes that the inscription has been altered and that the date now reads 1480.
Laudedeo Testi. La storia della pittura veneziana. Vol. 2, Il divenire. Bergamo, 1915, pp. 440, 450–51, 481, 484, ill. p. 485, attributes it to a pupil of Bartolomeo, probably after the master's design and perhaps finished after his death.
Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. Vol. 18, The Renaissance Painters of Venice. The Hague, 1936, p. 123 n. 3, judging from reproductions, states that it resembles late works by Bartolomeo.
Benno Fleischmann inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 34, Leipzig, 1940, p. 451, lists it as by Bartolomeo, questioning the date of 1499.
Elizabeth E. Gardner. "An Altarpiece of the Death of the Virgin." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 10 (June 1952), pp. 286–88, ill., attributes it to Bartolomeo.
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Venetian School. London, 1957, vol. 1, p. 202, lists it as a work from Bartolomeo's workshop.
Rodolfo Pallucchini. I Vivarini. Venice, , pp. 52, 128–29, fig. 208, assigns it to Bartolomeo and his workshop and dates it 1485–90.
P. Sambin. "Nuovi documenti per la storia della pittura in Padova dal XIV al XVI secolo." Bollettino del Museo Civico di Padova 53 (1964), pp. 25–26, 28, 30, 41–42, fig. 1, identifies it with an altarpiece commissioned from Bartolomeo by the Certosa in Padua in 1484, publishing the contract; identifies a Madonna and Child dated 1475 (now in the church of Saint Anthony, Veli Lošinj [Lussingrande], Croatia), as the pendant altarpiece from the Certosa and the picture discussed by Rossetti [see Notes].
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 211, 307, 422, 451, 608.
Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Venetian School. New York, 1973, pp. 91–92, pl. 103, call it a late work; state that the hard modelling and acid, strident colors reveal the influence of Paduan painting and that the landscape is influenced by Mantegna; note that the composition of the Death of the Virgin is similar to two other paintings of that subject, one by Gerolamo da Treviso the Elder (Cassa di Risparmio, Treviso) and one by Mantegna (Museo del Prado, Madrid); add that "the faulty foreshortening of certain figures . . . and the crude expressions of some of the faces suggest that it is partly a workshop product".
Philip Rylands. "Palma Vecchio's 'Assumption of the Virgin'." Burlington Magazine 119 (April 1977), p. 250, fig. 31.
A[nna]. M[aria]. Spiazzi. "Tre tavole del secolo XV e gli affreschi della scuola di S. Giuseppe in Padova." Bollettino del Museo Civico di Padova 68 (1979), p. 66, incorrectly identifies it with the work mentioned by Rossetti in 1765 [see Notes]; relates it to the altarpiece formerly in the Scuola di S. Giuseppe, Padua (now Museo Civico, Padua), depicting the same subject as the MMA painting and attributed to an anonymous Venetian painter of the end of the fifteenth century.
Dorothy Lygon and Francis Russell. "Tuscan Primitives in London Sales, 1801–1837." Burlington Magazine 122 (February 1980), p. 115 n. 27, p. 116, list lot no. 28 at the Turner sale of 1824 as sold for 18 guineas to Pinney, but do not identify it as the MMA painting [see Ref. Russell 1983]; suggest that the Turner picture might be the same work put up for sale by Colville at Christie's on July 8, 1814, lot no. 68 (5 gns., bought in).
Peter Humfrey. "Cima da Conegliano, Sebastiano Mariani, and Alvise Vivarini at the East End of S. Giovanni in Bragora in Venice." Art Bulletin 62 (September 1980), p. 361 n. 57, notes that it was commissioned as a pendant to another altarpiece already in the Certosa.
Francis Russell. Letter to Keith Christiansen. April 6, 1983, identifies it as a picture sold at auction by Sir Gregory Osborne Page Turner at Christie's, London, on June 8, 1824 [see Ref. Lygon and Russell 1980].
Alberta De Nicolò Salmazo inLa pittura in Italia: il Quattrocento. Ed. Federico Zeri. revised and expanded ed. [Milan], 1987, vol. 1, pp. 182–83 n. 23, accepts Sambin's [see Ref. 1964] identification of the Veli Lošinj and MMA paintings as the two altarpieces commissioned from Bartolomeo for the Certosa.
Francis Russell. "Early Italian Pictures and Some English Collectors." Burlington Magazine 136 (February 1994), pp. 87–88, fig. 17, states that Strange sold it to Bathurst, identifying the latter as the anonymous seller at the Christie's sale of June 2, 1781, where this work was bought in.
Oliver Garnett. "The Letters and Collection of William Graham—Pre-Raphaelite Patron and Pre-Raphael Collector." Walpole Society 62 (2000), p. 339, no. d371, fig. 209.
Robert Echols inItalian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century. Washington, 2003, p. 683, mentions that although the artist's last firmly dated work is from 1491, "there is some evidence that [the MMA picture] once bore a date of 1499".
Elizabeth A. Pergam. "From Manchester to Manhattan: The Transatlantic Art Trade After 1857." Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 87, no. 2 (2005), pp. 73–74, 85, 90.