May has traditionally been the Month of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in western culture. As the month draws to a close, I recommend these six panels which tell the story of Mary's death and burial. They were all painted by the Italian artist Duccio. The six panels actually form part of Duccio's extraordinary Maestà, which he painted during the years 1308-1311. They form part of the front crowning section. Please note that the story they tell is based on legend rather than on the Gospels.
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Here the angel Gabriel comes to tell Mary that she will soon die. He offers a palm branch, known as the palma mortis (palm of death) to Mary. (If you look for it, you will see that the palm is found in all six of Duccio's panels, as both an emblem of death and a symbol of paradise to come.)
Panel 2: Parting from St. John
Here Mary and St. John, the beloved disciple, bid each other their earthly farewell. The gesture between them is one of affection and intimacy. St. John has a special status among the Apostles because he was the one to whom Christ, on the point of death, had entrusted his mother.
Outside the room, the other disciples are present, having been gathered together from points throughout the world by miraculous means. Sts. Peter and Paul, in particular, are reunited and they embrace. (These scenes are based on stories of the Virgin according to a tradition handed down by several literary sources).
Panel 3: Parting from the Apostles
In this scene, Mary and the other apostles take their earthly leave of each other. The slender pillar in the foreground effectively divides the scene into two. The standing apostle is St. Paul. He is clearly outlined against the dark space formed by the open door. His vertical figure balances the horizontal image of Mary.
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Panel 4: Death of MaryHere Mary has just died. On the left are Sts. Paul, Peter and John. As before, St. John holds the palm of death (palma mortis). Christ himself stands next to his mother's deathbed, holding her animula (small being who represents the soul). A multitude of heavenly beings (presumably angels and saints) have joined the Apostles in the death-chamber. We may understand that they will join Christ in escorting her soul to Heaven.
St. John, still holding the palma mortis, is seen on the right, leading the funeral procession. St. Paul is just behind him.
In the front, on the left, St. Peter has turned around in apparent distaste over a layperson who is making a disturbance. The polygonal building of white marble in the background indicates that the funeral is taking place in Jerusalem.
Panel 5: Funeral Procession
The disciples are grouped quietly round the tomb in attitudes of sadness. St. Peter is on the left, and St. Paul on the right. St. John, on the other side of the body, still holds the palm. Another disciple on the left lifts his hand to his mouth in grief. The background of deeply indented rocks with small leafy trees evokes the valley of Jehoshaphat where the burial took place.
Panel 6: Burial