Italian Paintings – Assumption Of The Virgin

Titian’s masterpiece is “The Assumption of the Virgin.” It stands at the head of the long list the painters have left us. No one who has seen it will ever forget the impression it produces as it bursts upon his vision the moment he enters the Academy at Venice. The old painters used to distinguish between the Assumption of the soul and the Assumption of the body of the Virgin. In the first instance the moment the soul leaves the body Christ receives it into his keeping, standing in person either beside her deathbed or above it; but in the Assumption, properly so-called, we have the moment wherein the soul of the Virgin is reunited to her body, which at the command of Christ rises up from the tomb. This forms one of the most beautiful themes in art, not only for what it represents, but what it suggests. As the church had never settled in what manner she was translated into heaven, only pronouncing it heresy to doubt the fact, the artists had the field to themselves.

They usually represent it as a progressive action, the tomb below, the Virgin floating in mid air and the opening heaven above, the Trinity, the angels and all the Heavenly Host. Mrs. Jameson says of it: “The noble figure of the Virgin in a flood of golden light is borne or rather impelled upward with such rapidity that her veil and drapery are disturbed by the motion. Her feet are uncovered, a circumstance inadmissible in ancient art, and her drapery instead of being white is the usual blue and crimson, her appropriate colors in life. Her attitude with outstretched arms, her face not indeed a young or lovely face, but something far better, sublime and powerful in the expression of rapture; the divinely beautiful and childish yet devout, unearthly little angels around her, the grand apostles below and the splendor of color over all, render this picture an enchantment at once to the senses and the imagination. To me the effect is like music.” Mrs. Jameson strikes the keynote of the picture when she says, “The effect is like music.” Mr. Symonds says, “It can best be described as a symphony, a symphony of color, where every hue is brought into harmonious combination ; a symphony of movement where every line contributes to melodious rhythm; a symphony of light without a cloud ; a symphony of joy in which heaven and earth sing Hallelujah. On the earth there is action enough and passion, ardent faces straining upward, impatient men raising impotent arms and vainly divesting themselves of their mantles, as though they too might follow her they love. In heaven all is radiance, half eclipsing the archangel who holds the crown, and revealing the Father of spirits in an aureole of golden fire. Between earth and heaven, amid choirs of angelic children, rises the mighty mother of the faith of Christ, who was Mary, and is now a goddess, ecstatic, yet tranquil, not yet accustomed to the skies, but far above the grossness and incapacities of earth. Her womanhood is so complete that those for whom the meaning of her Catholic legend is lost may hail in her humanity personified. The grand manner can reach no further than in this picture, serene, composed, meditated, enduring, yet full of dramatic force and profound feeling.”

The “Assumption of the Virgin” is one of the twelve great pictures, and next to Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna,” the greatest picture in the world.

Mr. Symonds says: “To represent in art the intellectual strings of the Renaissance was the task of Florence and her sons. To create a monument of Renaissance magnificence was the task of Venice. Without Venice the modern world could not have produced that flower of sensuous and unreflective loveliness in painting which is worthy to stand beside the highest product of the Greek genius in sculpture. For Pallas Athena, from her Parthenon, stretches out her hand to Venezia enthroned in the Ducal Palace. The broad brow and earnest eyes of the Hellenic goddess are of one divine birth and lineage, with the golden hair and superb carriage of the sea queen.”

In closing, I want to repeat what I have said many times and which I firmly believe : “The river of art, ever flowing, may lift itself again and again, but never above the mark the old Italians left.”

( Originally Published 1912 )

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