Martin Schongauer, The Death of the Virgin, a copperplate engraving

Germany, Late AD 1470s

Mary surrounded by the apostles

According to the thirteenth-century Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, the 12 apostles gathered at Mary's deathbed. The youthful St John leans forward to help Mary's fingers grasp the lighted candle. Behind him, Peter in a surplice prepares to administer the last rites. Two kneeling apostles in the foreground read from the scriptures, through spectacles that cast a shadow on the page. Each apostle responds in his own way to the sombre event taking place before him.

The composition is dense with crumpled drapery, agitated fingers and earnest faces, all contained by the broad shapes of the bed and its canopy. Mary forms the focus of the drama, serene and pale against the surrounding shadows. Our attention is drawn to her by the ball of folded curtain apparently suspended above her head, but in fact far in front of it.

Schongauer's technique shows an astonishing advance on the work of earlier engravers, like Master ES. He seems to be pushing the burin through the copper with one hand, while turning the plate on a leather cushion with the other. Long curling lines describe hair, fabric, and metalwork, while shorter strokes suggest shadows or imply highlights (as in the white veins on the bare feet). 'This image was judged in my youth to be the finest work of art to have come out of Germany' wrote a print collector in 1550.

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More information


G. Bartrum, German Renaissance prints, 149, exh. cat. (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)

D. Landau and P. Parshall, The Renaissance print 1470-155 (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1994)


Height: 255.000 mm
Width: 171.000 mm

Museum number

PD 1895-9-15-258 (Bartsch 33)



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