In my previous post I pointed out that the title applied to Rembrandt’s signed and dated etching, Death of a Virgin (1639), is a misnomer, and it isn’t the Virgin Mary who is depicted dying in her bed.
In fact, the person is actually recovering from a near death experience, both in a physical and spiritual sense, thanks to the intercession and tender care of those in attendance.
So who is the sick person in the bed being cared for if not the Virgin Mary? Are they a woman or a man, perhaps a mother or a brother, saint or a sinner, or, more likely, both?
For Rembrandt, the person lived a common life some two centuries beforehand and, like Rembrandt, their name, reputation and achievements live on.
He is HUGO VAN DER GOES.
Rembrant has carved out Hugo’s name in section of the etching, not in normal handwriting like his own name, which can be found in the bottom left corner of the print, but in a symbolic way.
The references to Hugo go further, and there are at least thirty that Rembrandt has taken from what is considered the last painting produced by Van der Goes, Death of a Virgin, in which he portrays himself as the Prodigal Son, the same subject Rembrandt has presented with this etching and in the acclaimed Return of the Prodigal Son, painted before his own death in 1669. This work also pays tribute to Hugo van der Goes whose features are portrayed in the elder brother. Like the etching, there are several references that can be matched to Hugo’s Death of the Virgin, as many as fifty.
• My next post will explain the iconography that reveals the name of Hugo van der Goes in Rembrandt’s etching.
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