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:
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:
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.