This beautiful scene depicts “the three Marys” visiting Jesus’s tomb the morning after the Crucifixion. It is full of the human details and remarkable precision for which the Van Eycks were renowned. A fox appears in this painting, however. The first challenge is finding it. The second is figuring out why it is there.
Three Marys at the Tomb is attributed to either Jan Van Eyck, his elder brother Hubert, or both.
It depicts a scene from the New Testament: after Jesus’s crucifixion, “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.” Mark 16:1-2 (NRSV). When the three women arrived, they found, to their wonder, that Jesus’s body was missing.
Mark’s account doesn’t mention an angel, but Matthew provides this detail: “And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.” Matthew 28:2 (NRSV).
In Van Eyck’s interpretation, the three sentries who had been guarding the tomb doze in the dawn light, and the women, containers of ointments and spices in hand, gaze in astonishment at the scene before them.
At the far right, delicate golden lines appear against the grass. The Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s conservation studies have shown that these are rays of glory that shone around an image of a resurrected Jesus.
The museum reported, “Through the use of new technologies it was discovered that the gold beams on the panel are original and therefore must certainly have been painted by the master. It is also clear that the figure of Jesus once stood at the right of the work, but disappeared when more than ten centimetres were sawn off the panel.”
In the background is the city of Jerusalem. So meticulous is the brushwork – a hallmark of the Van Eycks – that minuscule people stroll the city streets.
The plants in the foreground are botanically accurate. The breastplate of the armored guard accurately reflects the scene around him. Every detail is deliberate.
So why does a fox appear in the background, disappearing almost completely into the color and texture of the crag on which it stands? Foxes appear in the Bible only a handful of times, with no clear connection to this scene.
Please comment if you have insights about this puzzle.
Three Marys at the Tomb
Artist: Jan Van Eyck (born before 1395, died before July 9, 1441) and/or Hubert Van Eyck (born c. 1385-90, died 1426)
Brothers Hubert and Jan Van Eyck were 15th century Flemish painters with similar artistic styles. Both men were renowned for their refinements to oil painting materials and techniques, their mastery of perspective, and their dazzlingly realistic details. Their most celebrated work was the Ghent Altarpiece, which many scholars believe was begun by Hubert and finished by Jan after Hubert’s death.
Date: c. 1410–26
Material & Support: Oil on wooden panel
Size: 71.5 cm. x 90 cm. (28 in. x 35 in.)
Location: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
“‘The Three Marys at the Tomb’ Attributed to Van Eyck,” Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.
ArtTube – The Three Marys at the Tomb, Attributed to Van Eyck (video, in Dutch with English subtitles)