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Visual Arts: Death, Passion and Politics Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

On May Day 1633, Sir Kenelm Digby, on entering his wife's bedchamber, was unable to awaken her. She had died in her sleep. Her death, which opens the final chapter of one of the great love stories of the 17th century, is the focus of an enthralling exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

No sooner had he discovered her corpse than Venetia Digby's husband summoned his friend, the artist Anthony Van Dyck, to paint it. The consequent picture, re-united with Van Dyck's portrait Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby as Prudence, forms the centrepiece of Dulwich's display. At first sight, the contrast between the two paintings appears obvious - the one a classic funerary portrait, the other a celebration of one of the century's beauties. The reality, however, is very different.

Sir Kenelm Digby was a complex man. Three at the time of his father's execution for involvement in the Gunpowder Plot, Digby became an intimate of Charles I. The model of a well-rounded, post-Renaissance man, he was both a devoted Christian and an amateur alchemist. His love affair with Venetia Stanley had captivated the imagination of fashionable society in engravings, popular ballads and poetry. When Venetia died, it was not only her husband who mourned, but the entire Stuart world.

It was Digby's grief, though, that inspired the two principal images at Dulwich. Venetia's portrait as Prudence is not a study from life, but a posthumously painted apotheosis. In this extravagant, Titianesque allegory, Van Dyck shows Lady Digby, her features borrowed from his earlier portrait of the Digby family, with her hands resting (a little fancifully) on the doves of Chastity as she triumphs over two-faced Deceit and tramples underfoot a cherub with a smouldering torch - an enduring symbol of Death.

Paradoxically, the painting of Venetia on her deathbed was painted "from life". Unlike the other deathbed portraits on view here, Venetia Digby is depicted at the very moment of death, one eye half closed, as she passes from sleep into eternity. We sense the increasing weight of her head as it drops into the downy softness of the pillow. The only hint at other- worldliness is the white light which falls unnaturally upon her face, lifting her, almost literally, above the picture plane.

On receipt of the picture, Sir Kenelm noted: "One could not distinguish whether it were of a sleeping or of a dead bodie," and, placing it beside his bed, would gaze at it every night.

Just as the deathbed picture allowed him to preserve Venetia's last earthly minutes, in her portrait as Prudence he could visualise his beloved as she would surely appear to him in Paradise. For Digby had his own theories of resurrection. Troubled by the contradictions of his faith and his scientific empiricism, he had famously attempted to regenerate a crayfish. In commissioning Van Dyck to paint his late wife, he was creating tangible evidence of the afterlife. Here, in paint, Sir Kenelm Digby finally found proof of the resurrection.

n To 14 Jan 1996. Booking: 0181-693 5254