The Assumption: One Miraculous Event, Two Different Artistic Visions

Today as many Christians commemorate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a hugely popular theme in art history, I wanted to share two interesting images of this subject with you. Even if you don’t believe in this dogma, or aren’t even a Christian, I think you’ll be able to appreciate both the beauty and the very different approaches that these artists take in looking at the same subject, albeit two centuries apart. The paintings not only demonstrate the development of Western art, but they also show how individual artists can take a common theme and re-interpret it in very different ways, and in so doing can speak to our own individual thoughts, preferences, and emotions.

The Assumption commemorates the belief, maintained in the Catholic, Orthodox, and certain Protestant churches, that at or shortly after her death, Mary the Mother of Jesus was received into Heaven, body and soul. It’s a belief of far older origin than most people realize, and commemorations of it are documented in 500 A.D. We’re going to focus on the art, not the theology, but you can do some more reading about the latter by following this link. [N.B. This is not the place for those of you who don’t believe in this dogma to get into it with those who do, so let’s just look at the art this morning, shall we?]

Beginning in the Middle Ages and up through the Renaissance, the most popular model followed by Western artists combined the death of the Virgin Mary and her Assumption into one scene, whose content was informed partially by pious legends and apocryphal stories which brought all of the Apostles back together in Jerusalem for her funeral. This was the model followed by many artists, including Raphael, El Greco, and perhaps most famously, Titian in his altarpiece for the Franciscans at the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. Over time, and perhaps in part due to the influence of the Counter-Reformation, this artistic model gradually fell out of favor, and artists began to depict the Assumption as an event which was primarily witnessed by angels, or by those already in Heaven, rather than by people left on earth.

Among the most richly-decorated depictions of the earlier model is that painted by the Early Italian Renaissance artist Fra Angelico around 1430-1434 for the Dominicans at the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. It’s now in the Gardner in Boston, and if you get to visit you’ll want to take some time to soak in the magnificent colors of this Late Gothic/Early Renaissance painting:

Angelico

If you’ll remember my post from last week about the origin and value of pigments in art, you’ll realize that this smallish panel – which is only about a foot and a half wide and two feet tall – must have cost a fortune to produce. Just the upper triangle with the figure of Jesus reaching down to receive His Mother alone would have been incredibly expensive to paint, given all of the blue which Fra Angelico used in this section. Yet despite all of the bling in this picture, there’s something wonderfully touching about details such as this tender and eager reunion of a Son with His Mother.

Notice also the individualized angels in Heaven playing their instruments, and the Apostles getting ready to carry the body of Mary to her tomb. I love the detail of how white-haired St. Peter is rushing over to the head of the bier, so that he can grasp one of the poles for carrying the body. In doing so he is catching up to St. John who, as in the Gospel account of the Resurrection, got there first but is waiting in deference to the Prince of the Apostles. I also love the figure of the Apostle whom I assume to be St. Jude, who is shown dressed in red and black and carrying a club, the instrument of torture with which he was martyred. His crazy-curly, unruly hair is something I can greatly sympathize with.

A completely different interpretation of the Assumption, painted two centuries later by the great French Baroque artist Nicholas Poussin in about 1630-1632, exemplifies the later model adopted by artists in depicting this event. It’s currently in the collection of the National Gallery here in Washington, and although not prominently hung it is worth seeing out, for it’s a jewel of a picture. At first glance this is a deceptively simple image, since the only concrete elements of the composition are the Virgin Mary, the chubby little angels, and the classical architectural setting – no host of earthly witnesses here:

Poussin

For me what’s particularly engrossing about this painting, apart from its glorious state of preservation and fresh colors, despite being almost 400 years old, is how it draws us in and convinces us that what we’re seeing is taking place in a three-dimensional space. The clouds wrap around the figures and draw them and our eye upward toward Heaven, a place that Mary is seeing for the very first time, with an expression of awe and wonder on her face. I also love it because despite the sense of swirling, upward movement portrayed by Poussin, this is really a quiet picture. We are privileged to see Mary returning to Her Son, but we are merely bystanders, not participants: this is a reunion that does not require an audience.

These two examples of very different interpretations of the same event show us how creativity in Western art was encouraged, rather than stifled, by the imposition of conventions, rules, and ideas. Illustrating something which was believed, but undocumented, was something of a challenge for these artists, since they had no contemporary descriptions of what the Assumption was like. And yet here we have two excellent examples of how each managed to approach the same subject in their own unique, very personal ways, creating works of art that played within the rules and yet brought out different aspects of this miraculous event for us to ponder upon, these many centuries later.

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Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Summer Exhibitions

Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Summer Exhibitions

Much as I’d like to, I can’t possibly visit and review all of the art shows I’d like to see this summer. So for my readers who find themselves in the following cities, here are a few exhibitions that you may want to put on your calendar. If you happen to visit one of these shows, be sure to leave your feedback in the Comments section on this post, letting us know what you thought of the exhibition.

BERLIN
Gemäldegalerie
El Siglo de Oro. The Age of Velázquez
July 1 – October 30

The “Siglo de Oro”, i.e. the “Golden Age” of Spanish culture, occurred between about 1550-1650. It was a century-long flowering of the arts and literature that included most of the greatest Spanish Old Master painters, such as El Greco, Murillo, Zurbarán, and of course, Velázquez, among others. This was my specialty subject when I was studying at Sotheby’s, and an area of art history that is always close to my heart. While overall the best place to see Siglo de Oro art is in Madrid, with the cooperation of the Spanish Crown and a number of international institutions, Berlin has managed to put together what appears to be a fairly comprehensive overview of this period, with 130 examples of painting, sculpture, and drawing.

BOSTON
Museum of Fine Arts
Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence
August 9 – December 4

Opening a bit later this summer, the MFA’s look at the work of the Della Robbia family and their colorful Renaissance ceramics promises to be especially popular. The Della Robbias combined elegant human figures, and delectable renderings of fruits and vegetables, in what became the signature style of their workshop – a style which ceramics manufacturers still copy today. For me the standout here is the loan of Luca Della Robbia’s magnificent “Visitation” of 1445 from San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, a church in the Tuscan town of Pistoia, a work which has never traveled to the United States before. Created nearly 600 years ago, it is just as fresh, poignant, and beautifully observed now, as it was then.  

CHICAGO
The Art Institute
America after the fall: Painting in the 1930’s
June 3 – September 18

The Great Depression not only brought about an end to the high life of the Roaring ‘20’s, it also ushered in a new era in American painting wherein artists took a more serious, sometimes dour (or even sinister) tone. The Art Institute’s examination of this period features masterpieces that are well-known images – Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and Edward Hopper’s “Gas” for example – as well as important works displaying the wide variety of styles explored by American artists during that era, from the surrealistic dream images of Georgia O’Keeffe, to the seedy social realism of Paul Cadmus. If you are interested in learning more about the development of Modern Art in America between the Wars, this appears to be an excellent opportunity for you to do so.    

While you are there, be sure to check out the Art Institute’s newly-acquired “Christ Carrying the Cross” by Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). While del Piombo is a bit of a derivative hybrid of Michelangelo and Raphael at times, his figures often have a wonderfully sculptural quality, and he employs shadows and angles that almost anticipate the development of Tenebrism. This picture is the first del Piombo in the Art Institute’s collection, and although he painted several variations and copies of this composition – there is one in The Prado for example, whose shading is a bit more subtle, although perhaps a bit overcleaned – it is well worth seeing if you are unfamiliar with his work.

WASHINGTON DC
The Phillips Collection
William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master
June 4 – September 11

Portraits painted by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) usually lack the beauty and style of a good John Singer Sargent, as the subjects often come off as a bit defiant and slightly unrefined. Yet in their directness, they are images of an increasingly confident America at the turn of the previous century. Chase not only painted powerful portraits and casually elegant still lifes, he also played a huge part in making oil pastels popular in this country – a medium which, if you have ever worked in it, is simultaneously wonderfully tactile and frustratingly delicate. This survey of Chase’s output features a number of his portraits, still lifes, interiors, and pastels, as well as his typically Impressionist works of languid ladies lunching in landscapes.

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The Visitation (detail) by Luca Della Robia (c. 1445)

The Courtier And The Federalist: Seeing Sargent

I am pleased to share that today marks my first – and hopefully not my last – appearance in The Federalist, the well-known blog on culture, politics, and religion. In today’s post, “John Singer Sargent Reveals The Private Lives Of The Rich And Famous”, I take my recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and their current exhibition, “Yours Sincerely, John S. Sargent” as a touchstone, and invite readers to get to know the work of one of the greatest American painters. In the process, I ask that we reflect on what we think we see when looking at his art, and indeed at ourselves. My thanks to Ben Domenech and everyone at The Federalist for this opportunity to share my thoughts with their audience.

And now I must beg you a favor:

If you like or dislike what you read, gentle reader, please comment on the piece over at The Federalist site. If you think it a not-terrible bit of writing, do let the editors there know by saying so in the comments. Oftentimes the only comments one receives are criticism, but compliments can be just as helpful to the writer and his editors. Of course if you think the piece rather inferior, do please leave feedback as to how it could be improved upon. Interest drives page views in online media, and I can only improve as a writer if I am told what readers like and do not like about my work.

Thank you again for your support!

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