GOES, Hugo van der
(b. ca. 1440, Ghent, d. 1482, Bruxelles)
The Death of the Virginc. 1480
Oil on wood, 147,8 x 122,5 cm
Groeninge Museum, Bruges
The major painting of Van der Goes's third period (between around 1478 and 1482) and very likely one of the last works he painted is the Death of the Virgin. The panel is almost square in shape. The scene is set in a totally enclosed room. The apostles are grouped around Mary's bed. The Virgin's fine blue robe contrast with the purple sheets that cover the bed. Her livid gray face is framed by the immaculate whiteness of her wimple, and of the cushion on which her head rests. Her hands are joined, her fingers look quite bony. Her eyes have lost their lustre. She looks up one last time towards the heavens, where her Son appears to her in His glory with arms outstretched, to display the wounds in his hands. He is dressed in a blue robe and a large red cloak held up by two angels. The picture represents the moment at which life has already gently slipped away, but death has not yet completed its work.
The painter uses the apostles to ring the changes on the different varieties of grief, and their profound sadness contrasts with the detachment of the Virgin herself. Their clothes have been creased into countless shifting folds which cut across one another at right angles. Van der Goes is revealed as a penetrating analyst of religious feeling, of grief and devotion, and of the agitation they can cause. This work, like all those he painted during his last period, represents the eruption of sacred experience into a profane world. The artist achieves this through an abundant use of colours which strike the viewer as unreal, as if they were themselves transfigured. In this way, Van der Goes seeks to identify his painting with the mystery of transcendence itself.
To this end too, the gestures of his figures are emphatic. He uses techniques or the progressive reduction of pictorial space and the transformation of figures, which he paints half-length, not full length.