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.

New Shows in DC, New York Celebrating El Greco

To mark the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco (1541-1614), both the National Gallery of Art here in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have just opened new exhibitions celebrating his life and work.  Although ethnically Greek and born on the island of Crete, El Greco – whose proper name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos – did the vast majority of his work in Spain, where he settled in his mid-30’s and spent the rest of his life.  His is quite a fascinating story of how a creative person’s output can completely change over time, based on the environment they work in.

In Manhattan, “El Greco in New York” runs from now until February 1st, and features 16 paintings by El Greco from the collections of both the Metropolitan Museum and the Hispanic Society of America. The show includes El Greco’s stunning “View of Toledo”, a landscape of his adopted city under storm clouds and lightning,which looks as though it could have been painted centuries later; his captivating portrait of the very intimidating  Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, whom you clearly did not want to tangle with; and two very different versions of a nocturnal “Adoration of the Shepherds”, showing the shepherds arriving at the stable with joy to meet the Christ Child.

Here in Washington, the National Gallery has mounted “El Greco: A 400th Anniversary Celebration” of the artist’s work, in collaboration with The Philips Collection, Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, and The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.  There are 10 paintings in the exhibition, which opened this past weekend and continues until February 16th.  Highlights include his charming, bright altarpiece of “St. Martin and the Beggar”, which is one of my favorites for showing the Roman soldier and martyr dressed in contemporary Spanish armor; the powerful, heavy contrasts of the “Repentant St. Peter” from The Philips; and the almost-abstract “Visitation” from Dumbarton Oaks, which I always make a point of seeing when I drop by the museum.

Unusually for an important artist of the late Renaissance, El Greco began his working life as an icon painter.   While there is always some room for individual expression in the creation of such works, the repetition of familiar and well-established elements is very important to that school of Christian art.  As a result, it makes it difficult for the average person to tell what century a particular icon was painted in, from simple observation.  El Greco might have remained content to stay in the tradition of icon painting, or “writing” as it is often referred to, but instead he decided to take a chance and go to Venice, which ruled Crete at the time.

Once he got to Italy, El Greco began to change radically as an artist.  From his work and studies in Venice and Rome, he absorbed what he observed in the late Renaissance and Mannerist art that was being created around him, so different from the Byzantine icons he himself had been trained to create. He was able to study with Titian, the last of the living great masters of the High Renaissance, explore the churches and palaces, and meet with a number of very important people.  He even communicated with Pope St. Pius V, offering to wipe out Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel and paint something more suitable, noting that the late Florentine master was a great sculptor who did not know how to paint very well (a sentiment I share.)

However most of El Greco’s greatest work even today is located in Spain, because that is where he moved after job opportunities in Italy were not working out as he had hoped. The Spanish imperial court was quite different from the flashy, humanist salons in Rome or Florence that El Greco had grown accustomed to.  Serious, stiff, and devoutly Catholic, the Spanish aristocracy when El Greco arrived was not interested in showing off.  They dressed almost exclusively in black most of the time, seeking to impress through sober formality rather than over-familiarity or flippancy, and saved their decoration for their churches.

As a result, El Greco’s art began to change once again.  Whereas previously, he mimicked the colors and light of the Italy he experienced as a young man, as he grew older and spent more and more time in the barren, desert-like plains and cities of central Spain, El Greco’s paintings gradually became darker, featuring stark outlines and contrasts, more elongation and distortion.  His style changed to the point that by the end of his life, some of his later pieces could very easily be mistaken for being works created by a Modern artist in the 20th century.

While you may not be able to get to Madrid or Toledo to see El Greco’s finest work, here in the United States we are fortunate to have about 4 dozen works by El Greco, many of them quite good, in collections around the country.  And now, even more fortunately for those in the Northeast Corridor, two of the best places to see his work are New York and DC.  With these anniversary exhibitions having just opened, you’ll be able to more closely observe his progression as a creative thinker for yourself.

"St. Martin and the Beggar" by El Greco (c. 1597) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

“St. Martin and the Beggar” by El Greco (c. 1597)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Men In Armor: Art on the Edge of Change

At The Frick in Manhattan, a new exhibition entitled Men in Armor opens today, juxtaposing portraits by El Greco and his contemporary, the less well-known Italian painter, Scipione Pulzone.  The show is taking place as part of a commemoration of the 500 years since the death of El Greco, whose work was rediscovered and re-appreciated beginning with the Impressionists and which continues unabated today.  What unites both paintings, apart from their timeframe, is the portrayal of two martial members of Roman society.  Yet despite what at first glance may seem to be very similar images, there are important differences between the two, which speak to how Western art stood on the edge of change, not long after these portraits were painted.

Pulzone’s portrait of Jacobo (also known as Giacomo) Boncompagni is an example of the highly refined, haughtily aristocratic imagery which characterized society portraiture during this period.  Boncompagni, commander of the Papal Army back when there were Papal States, was the son of the man later elected as Pope Gregory XIII.  We all know that a number of the popes, particularly during the Renaissance, were far from saintly, but it should be pointed out that Gregory XIII is generally considered to have tried his best to live piously during his pontificate; the affair which produced Jacobo Boncompagni took place when the future pope was still a layman.

Despite the fact that Pulzone is portraying one of the most powerful Italians of his day, the painting speaks to a foreign influence.  The seriousness and darker tones of this type of portrait were originally popularized by what was, at the time, Europe’s greatest superpower: Spain.  Even as early as the time of Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog and author of the “Book of the Courtier”, Spain was looked to by many aristocrats and intellectuals of the Renaissance as a model of both appearance and behavior, worthy of being emulated.

Earlier, related examples of how European artists catered to the serious tastes of the Spanish court include Titian’s famous image of Felipe II as Crown Prince, painted around 1550-1551, and the 1557 portrait of the now-King Felipe by the Dutch portraitist Antonis Mor.  In both of these propaganda images, as in the portrait by Pulzone, the background is dark, the individual is starkly lit, and the gleam of intricately inlaid armour contrasts with the muddled shades and textures of the fabric.  Notwithstanding their comparatively minimal surroundings, the men in these paintings give off an impression of restrained luxury, and a male peacock’s pride of appearance, even though the flashy, comic book colors which we often associate with the Renaissance are completely absent.

The Frick’s rare, full-length portrait by El Greco of Vincenzo Anastagi, sergeant-major of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, at first might seem to be related to these other images.  Like these, Anastagi is also shown dressed in gleaming armor, ruff collar, and plush velvet, minus the fashionable codpiece sported by both Felipe II and Jacobo Boncompagni.  However, closer inspection reveals some significant differences between the images of Anastagi and his contemporary Boncompagni, which both speak to their relative status in the pecking order, and show how Western art was about to start looking inward.

For one, the armor worn by the two men is quite different: Anastagi’s is polished, but plain, whereas Boncampagni’s armor is highly decorated, reflecting their relative wealth and status.  Anastagi is placed in a simple, white-washed room with a small window, the blandness of the background made slightly more dynamic by the addition of some burgundy velvet drapes.  By contrast, even though Boncompagni stands in a darkened room, he is placed next to a table covered by a rich, satin tablecloth, and the space is punctuated by the sweep of a steel blue velvet curtain edged in gold embroidery.  We can also see that Anastagi’s rather ordinary, workaday soldier’s helmet lays, untied and discarded, on the floor behind him, while Boncompagni rests his arm on a magnificent, engraved and hammered helmet, perhaps from one of the highly prestigious Renaissance armorers in Milan.

There are also palpable differences in the expressions of these two men.  Ananstagi, with his sunburnt nose from many days out on the ramparts of the castle, looks somewhat suspiciously at the viewer, trying to decide what to make of the person who is looking back at him.  Boncompagni, on the other hand, seems self-assured and detached, almost languidly so, as he deigns to give you some of his attention.  Whereas El Greco gives us an individual in this painting, Boncompagni gives us a type.

Not convinced? Take a look at what each of these two men are doing.  Anastagi is a real person, who doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands unless he is handling a weapon.  Boncompagni on the other hand, is putting on a show, rather than telling us anything really significant about himself.  His hands hold a document and a baton, respectively, indicating that he is a man of learning and power to be reckoned with, but they look and indeed function as theatrical props.  Clearly, if Pulzone is showing us the world as people imagined it to be during his time, El Greco is, by contrast, giving us a sense of what the people of that era were really like.

By the time of El Greco’s death in 1614, a new style of portrait painting had taken hold in Spain and began to spread elsewhere.  It reflected the sobriety of earlier portraiture to the Spanish taste, but also displayed a greater willingness to avoid flattery.  What the deceivingly simple Frick exhibit does, is to show when that sea change in Western art really began to take place.  That transition to a more natural portrayal of the sitter, making him less attractive but more introspective, is due at least in part to the work of perceptive and challenging artists like El Greco.

Detail of "Portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi" by El Greco (c. 1550-1551) The Frick Collection, New York

Detail of “Portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi” by El Greco (c. 1550-1551)
The Frick Collection, New York