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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Rediscovered Raphael? Beautiful Renaissance Image Of The Virgin Mary Comes To Light

I have a potentially major, and extremely beautiful, art discovery for you to enjoy this morning.

Recently, art historian and television host Bendor Grosvenor was researching the collections at Haddo House, a country estate in Scotland that was once owned by the Earls of Aberdeen, when he came across a painting that struck him as interesting. The piece, which was extremely dirty and murky under old layers of varnish, is an image of the Virgin Mary, depicted with her hands crossed over her heart. For some time it has been attributed to a minor Italian artist, Innocenzo di Pietro Francucci da Imola (1490-1550). Mr. Grosvenor thought the painting was too good to be by a lesser hand, and asked for permission to have the painting examined and cleaned.

What emerged is the beautiful painting you see in the photograph below, flanked by Mr. Grosvenor and his co-presenter Jacky Klein from the BBC television show “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces”, which is believed to be a lost work by the great Renaissance master Raphael. A drawing of a similar image by Raphael, plus the fact that closer examination revealed pentimenti – changes to the painting made by the artist as he painted – as well as preparatory underdrawing typical of Raphael’s working method, helped persuade Mr. Grosvenor that this was the real thing. The painting has been dated to about 1505-1510, which would cover both Raphael’s “Florentine Period”, when he spent much of his time living and working in Florence, and the early part of his “Roman Period”, which began after he moved to Rome permanently in 1508.

In looking at some other works by Innocenzo, whom I must admit I had never heard of, it is somewhat difficult to understand why this piece was ever attributed to him in the first place. While he painted in a style that was similar to Raphael’s, his modelling and facial expressions are often somewhat clumsy, and certainly nothing like that shown in this work. For me though, what seals the deal here are the hands: Raphael had a very distinctive, elegant way of painting fingers and fingernails, which you begin to recognize the more familiar you become with his work. Zoom in on the Pope’s hands in Raphael’s somewhat later “Portrait of Pope Leo X with Two Cardinals” and you will see what I mean.

Other details, not conclusive in themselves, are also typical of Raphael paintings of the Virgin Mary from this period in his career, including the dark blonde hair braided into plaits and pulled back into a bun, the diaphanous veil falling over the head, and the simple gold embroidery at the edges of the fabrics. The painting also has a very Raphaelesque color scheme of a salmon pink dress, accompanied by a turquoise blue mantle which has a rich green underside. Raphael frequently used variations on this color combination in his images of the Madonna and Child – including his somewhat faded and dirty “Tempi Madonna” of 1508, which was painted around the same time as the dates of possible execution proposed for the Haddo House painting. Personally, I suspect that the same model posed for both pictures, as we can see if we look at the curve of the lips and the brow of both figures.

Raphael has always been my favorite artist, ever since I can remember (with Velázquez as a close second.) He is the Mozart of painters, and while some exclusively prefer tortured souls or cerebral detachment in their art and music, for me Raphael, like Mozart, is a kind of celestial preview. His art often embodies the “sprezzatura” advocated by his good friend Castiglione, who of course is the patron and inspiration for this blog. There is a seemingly effortless grace in his work that, as Mr. Grosvenor says, makes you ask, “How did he do that?”

Viewed purely as a work of art, this painting is a significant addition to the catalogue of works known or believed to be by Raphael – if in fact a majority of art experts come to accept this as being from his hand. It is obviously very beautiful, aesthetically speaking. It is also hitherto relatively unstudied by art historians, and as such will prove to be a great adventure for those who want to try to research subjects such as its provenance or the materials and methods used in creating it.

As a work originally created for religious purposes, it is a deceptively simple piece. Like some other almost pre-Tenebrist paintings of Raphael, where there are dark backgrounds and no elaborate settings to distract our gaze, this picture is wonderfully direct. Rather than complicated compositional theatrics, we are presented with a very quiet, reflective image of the Mother of the Savior, delicately indicating her Immaculate Heart. It is such a lovely, tranquil image that, within the next few years, I suspect you will begin to see it illustrating covers of spiritual books, prayer cards, and so forth.

For those of my readers in the UK, you can learn all about the details of the discovery when the latest episode of “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces” airs tomorrow night. Unfortunately Mr. Grosvenor’s show does not currently air in the U.S., at least not yet. However his blog is on my list of must-reads every morning, and so I want to highly recommend it to you. He is far more knowledgeable than I about art history, and I often learn new things from him. Therefore if you like what I write here or in The Federalist, you will most definitely enjoy his work – and more importantly, kudos to him for finding this lost masterpiece.

One Day, Three Very Different Women

Sometimes the calendar presents us with juxtapositions that, were they presented in a film script, would be dismissed as being too implausible to be believed; today is one of those days.  For not only is March 25th the birthday of feminist Gloria Steinem, it’s also the birthday of author Flannery O’Connor, in addition to being the Feast of the Annunciation,  when the Virgin Mary said “Yes” to becoming the mother of Jesus Christ.  Clearly, each of these women has left us very different legacies.

Steinem’s legacy is, in some sense, being debated this very day by Hobby Lobby and others at the U.S. Supreme Court, on the question of whether businesses can be forced to pay for contraceptive devices such as IUD’s which they find morally objectionable on religious grounds.  One can imagine Steinem’s opinion of this court case without even having to look it up.  Steinem has entered her twilight years with what could charitably be referred to as a checkered and hypocritical legacy, at best.

Of course, Steinem leapt to fame in 1963 for doing a good thing: exposing how women were abused by the Playboy organization.  The problem is, the pornographic world we now inhabit, as a result of the so-called liberation which she helped usher in, is unquestionably more degrading and abusive in its objectification of women than what preceded it.  Steinem’s efforts have led to the enslavement of millions of women AND men to the recreational sex and pharmaceutical industries, the spread of sexually transmitted disease to a staggering 1/3 of the U.S. population, the creation of countless commitment-free relationships, and the explosion of illegitimacy across all levels of society.  Not to mention, of course, that as she marks her 80th birthday, and wipes away the hoary cobwebs from her mind, one suspects Steinem will not pause to think about the millions of American children who will never see their own birthdays, thanks to her efforts on behalf of legalizing abortion on demand.

Flannery O’Connor is someone altogether different: not just from Steinem, but indeed from most people.  Her fiction is not easy to read, in that it is sometimes violent, strangely mystical, and can involve unusual sentence constructions.  There is also a dark, wry humor in her work, which takes some getting used to.  My most beloved professor in college loved Flannery O’Connor, and she tried desperately to get us to like her writing also.  However whether because of being a Yankee rather than a Southerner, or having a deep-seated aversion to reading about physical violence, for years I was unable to understand or appreciate her work.

Then recently, I read reports of the publication of a newly-discovered prayer journal from O’Connor’s student days in Iowa.  This piqued my interest, not so much because I was interested in changing my mind about her as a fiction writer, but because some of the excerpts struck me as being those of a kindred soul.  I read quotes such as, “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story- just like the typewriter was mine,” and I thought, “I *get* that.”  So I did what any sensible fellow should do under the circumstances: I bought a copy, and hopefully will be reading it a bit later on this Lenten season.

Finally we get to the great Feast of the Annunciation, on which Flannery O’Connor was born, and because of which her first name was actually “Mary”, in honor of the Blessed Mother – who as we know from St. Luke’s Gospel, said “Yes” when asked to become the mother of the Messiah. The Annunciation was a hugely popular subject in the history of Western art, as anyone who has studied art history knows.  One reason is that it allowed the artist to imagine what an angelic messenger appearing from Heaven might look like, as opposed to simply painting the humdrum and everyday.

Yet portraying the Annunciation also allowed a creative mind to consider what sort of person Mary herself was, at the moment she appeared on the stage of world history.  Keep in mind that, apocrypha and pious legends aside, other than Isaiah’s prophecy about her we really know nothing at all about Mary from Scripture up until this very moment when she consents to follow God’s Will for her.  What came after, of course, happened because she chose to cooperate, instead of trying to defeat or resist His Will.

In his “Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus” of 1333, the Sienese painter Simone Martini portrayed the Virgin Mary not as a cowering, uncertain and now-pregnant teenager, nor as a self-confident queen setting out to conquer the world, but as a woman who has just been presented with some very unsettling news by an unexpected visitor.  Had Steinem been present she would have called Gabriel all sorts of names culled from reading too much Simone de Beauvoir, and rushed the Blessed Mother off to the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic.  Yet there is a timeless humanity here, in this nearly 800-year-old depiction of Mary, which I suspect O’Connor, who was so often presented with unexpected and indeed unwanted news in her own life, would have related to.

The difference lies in the reaction of each of these women to what they are being confronted with.  Whereas Steinem’s choice has always been to blame others for her own misery, and to try to drag down as many into misery with her as she can, O’Connor’s decision was to follow God’s Will in her life, no matter how difficult that might have been.  In this, she had a deeper understanding of the “Yes” to God’s Will, given by the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, and the implications of such consent, than do those of us who live lives of relative comfort and good health.

In her story “Temple of the Holy Ghost”, O’Connor describes a young girl on the cusp of adolescence, who worries that she can never become a saint.  Through some unusual and unexpected events, she experiences a profound spiritual revelation about the Will of God, even though that lesson is not apparent to those around her.  As the story ends, one senses that she has begun a great spiritual journey, as did the Virgin Mary, beginning on this Feast of the Annunciation, and as did Flannery O’Connor, who grew as both a writer and a woman of faith.  These are the two women among the three whom we should celebrate, even as we pray for the conversion of the other, who will no doubt be receiving the lion’s share of attention on this day.

Detail of "The Annunciation" by Simone Martini (1333) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Detail of “The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus” by Simone Martini (1333)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence