MASTER of Heiligenkreuz
(active in the early 1400s in Austria)
The Death of St. Clare1410
Tempera on wood, 66,4 x 53,5 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington
This artist, who was most probably trained in France but active in Austria, derived his name from a diptych which originated from Heiligenkreuz. The picture reproduced here also has a counterpart representing the death of the Virgin.
We can see nuns and saints busy praying around the dead saint beside her canopied bed. In the opening showing blue sky at the top, Jesus is depicted receiving the infant which symbolizes the saint's soul as it rises to heaven. Angels holding banners and musical instruments are incised in the golden background. Rather surprisingly at the right side the same angels have descended from the flat background and settled down upon the canopy. The arrangement of the whole upper right-hand side is very characteristic of the International Gothic style and can be imagined virtually only in this period of painting. It is strange in itself that the painter suspended the canopy from two ropes, although no trace of a ceiling is discernible. A singular blend of a stylized, decorative pattern and the representation of three-dimensional forms is shown by the golden angels, who cover a part of the farther rope. This is a peculiar manifestation of the detailed realism mentioned in the introduction, by which the decorative motifs are incorporated into the realistic interpretation of the scene. The angels appearing from the clouds on the left and depicted in an entirely abstract way have become embodied in the right corner, where they come nearer to the real world, while the golden background is transformed into an aerial substance. The same intention - the harmonization of heavenly and earthly details - is reflected by the way in which the faces and hands of the angels with censers who appear below the canopy are depicted with the same three-dimensional quality as are the saints and nuns. In fact, the painter's basic problem throughout the composition was to integrate the interpretation of the sacred and the temporal elements. By adhering to the golden background he wanted to bring the spectator close to St Claire's deathbed, but he was able to achieve this only by placing the bed on a grassy space, in the open air instead of in the interior of a room.