Saint Clare, a wealthy woman from the central Italian town of Assisi, gave up all her possessions to pursue the goals of poverty and service preached by Saint Francis. She founded an order of nuns known as the Poor Clares, which was recognized by the Pope in 1253. This painting depicts the vision of the death of Saint Clare as experienced by one of her followers, Sister Benvenuta of Diambra.
In the vision of Saint Benvenuta, the Virgin Mary and a procession of virgin martyrs appeared to Saint Clare on her deathbed. Here Mary, dressed in a rich brocade robe, supports Saint Clare's head, while the other elegantly robed and crowned saints follow behind, identified by the tiny attributes they hold.
The work of the Master of Heiligenkreuz, who was probably active in Lower Austria, illustrates the cosmopolitan aspect of the International Style, which flourished around 1400. While his exaggerated figures with their bulbous foreheads and clinging drapery are characteristically Austrian, the anonymous painter must also have been aware of the most advanced art produced at the courts of Paris and Prague. Thus the surface of the panel is worked in a variety of different techniques to fashion a particularly splendid object.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication German Paintings of the Fifteenth through Seventeenth Centuries, which is available as a free PDF https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/german-painting-fifteenth-through-seventeenth-centuries.pdf
on left-hand page of book held by nun at lower right: Dii labia
Possibly the Convent of the Poor Clares, Eger (Cheb), Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia), or Eger (Erlau), Hungary. (Karl Schäfer, Munich); (Walter Schnackenberg, Munich), 1921/1922-1951; in 1943 a one-third share was acquired from Schnackenberg by Carl Langbehn, Munich, and passed by inheritance to his mother, Marta Langbehn. owned jointly by (Seiler & Co., Walter Schnackenberg, and Alfred Müller, Munich); sold 1951 to (M. Knoedler & Co., New York, with Pinakos, Inc. [Rudolf Heinemann]); purchased 1951 by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York; gift 1952 by exchange to NGA.
- Lent by Walter Schnackenberg to the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, in 1926.
- Sigismundus rex et imperator: art et culture au temps de Sigismond de Luxembourg, 1387-1437, Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest; Musée national d'histoire et d'art, Luxembourg, 2006, no. 7.40, repro.
- Master of Heiligenkreuz, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 2019, no. 4, figs. 7, 14 (detail), color repro. 75.
The support appears to consist of a three-member panel of fir with vertically oriented grain. Direct examination was not possible because the edges of the panel have been enclosed with 0.5 cm thick strips of mahogany and a wooden cradle has been attached to the reverse. On the reverse of the panel is a moderately thick layer of wax.
The major design elements of the composition, including the outlines of the figures, the primary drapery folds, major architectural motifs, and numerous details, are incised into the smooth white ground layer that is estimated to be somewhat thickly applied. Sheets of gold leaf have been applied, over a layer of thin, fluid red bole, to the upper background, the halos of the standing saints, and the angels under the canopy at the right. A great variety of punches in a wide range of sizes has been used to create in the gold leaf elaborate designs and figures of angels. Examination with infrared reflectography did not reveal underdrawing.
Examination of the technically congruent pendant, The Death of the Virgin, in the Cleveland Museum of Art provided important information about the probable original state of the National Gallery's picture. The Cleveland panel is 1.3 cm thick, and the reverse covered with what appears to be an original layer of white ground; the panel has not been thinned or cradled. One can assume that the Washington panel, presently 1 cm thick, was in a similar state before cradling. In the Cleveland panel a fairly coarse and loosely woven plain-weave fabric is observable between the support and the overlying ground and paint layers. This helps to confirm the use of a fabric interlayer in the Washington painting, which is suggested by the weave pattern visible in the x-radiograph. The metal content pigments of both paintings were analyzed with x-ray fluorescence, and the results for the paintings were very similar.
The National Gallery's painting is structurally secure and is in very good condition. Small pinpoint losses are scattered throughout, and some of the paint surfaces are minutely abraded. Larger retouched areas of abrasion are located in paint next to the gilt areas of the canopy, along the left profile edge of the standing Virgin next to Saint Clare, and in the bottom of Christ's red robe. The gilt stars on Clare's bed are badly worn.
 The identification of the wood as fir (sp. Abies) was made by the National Gallery's scientific research department. An x-radiograph made prior to cradling is in the National Gallery's conservation department. The examination was conducted 7-8 April 1988 by the author and by Paula DeCristofaro, formerly associate conservator for the Systematic Catalogue, with Bruce F. Miller, conservator of paintings at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I am most grateful to Mr. Miller and his staff for their assistance in making the painting available to us.
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