Titian: Assumption of the Virgin

Titian, Assumption of the Virgin, 1516-1518 Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice,Italy

Marino Sanuto states that with the Assumption, “Titian established classical High Renaissance art in Venice, for in its dramatic gestures, its breadth of form, and its symbolically geometric structure, the Assumption epitomizes…” [1] the work that Raphael was doing Titian’s Assumption altarpiece, created for the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari’s main altar, was so innovative when it was introduced to the Venetian public it was not immediately appreciated. Titian’s innovation and new concepts were thrust into the public eye in a size and scope the public was clearly not prepared for. The Assumption was the largest altarpiece yet painted in Venice; it soars an impressive twenty two feet high. Titian depicted the Assumption of the Virgin in a manner alluded to in the drawings of Fra Bartolommeo, but not yet realized; compositionally, Raphael’s Transfiguration, 1516-1520 is the closest compositional precedent. The heroic figures, drama, and expressive qualities of the Assumption were a novel concept in Venice when introduced. Much of Titian’s innovation stems from peculiarities of the Gothic basilica’s interior space and existing architectural elements, and his interpretation, theme, and layers of meaning. Titian faced several problems he had to address in order to compose a painting that would not only fit into the existing space, but also be a focal point of the apse.

In response to the vast distance between viewers and the main altar of the Frari, Titian envisioned an altarpiece on a monumental scale. The Virgin of the Assumption invites us to view her from several vantage points; in each one she remains the central figure. Each orthogonal leads the eye to her. Upon entering the basilica, the figure of the Virgin is at the center of the space. Proceeding up the aisle, her face is at the center of the repeating arches of the choir screen and architectural frame. Moving closer to the altarpiece, the monumental scale and heroically dramatic figures appear and the viewer sees the entire painting for the first time. Upon entering the Frari, the Virgin’s portrait appears to be at the center of the interior space. Viewed through an impressive choir screen, which blocks much of the altarpiece’s composition, the size and scope of the painting are initially hidden from view. As the worshipper proceeds down the aisle, the painting is revealed. Bellini, and other painters before him, carried elements of existing architectural space into their fictitious space by adding elements of the actual space to the imagined space. What Bellini considered, however, was a static viewer seeing the painting from a single, ideal vantage point. What Titian did was remarkably innovative; he understood that the setting was important on many more levels and that the viewer would move through the space coming to the painting from several vantage points. Titian worked to make his paintings accessible from many points and to include and encompass the existing architectural space. It was his response and adaptation while painting, due to the lack of pre-planned cartoons, which allowed for much of his innovation and ability to bring life to his canvas.

Titan worked to compose a painting that could relate to its intended space. Begun in 1330, with the choir, transepts and campanile, the Frari’s high altar was not consecrated until 1469. The Frari was built in the Italian Gothic style, with a row of small chapels on either side of the chancel, stone columns, wood tie beans and clerestory windows, with the choir interrupting the massive space of the nave. “The warmer character of the interior of the Frari must also be attributed to the effect of Titian’s marvelous high altarpiece, the famous ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ commissioned in 1516. The compelling presence of this pictorial vision, framed by the central arch of the choir which concentrates one’s attention on the painting and at the same time makes it seem more remote and intangible draws the eye straight to the focal point of the architecture.” [2] Cole states that “So striking is the overall impression of this huge altarpiece that it rivets the onlooker’s attention even in the monumental, light-filled choir of Santa Maria dei Frari. It is a commanding work equal to its august surroundings.” [3] The ornate apse windows behind the main altar, framed in ornate Gothic traceries, presented Titian with a problem to solve. The vast space between worshippers and main altar was also a consideration. The choir screen, through which the altarpiece is viewed, and the great architectural frame, presented problems the artist had to solve. Synthesizing all he had learned, the ideas of the High Renaissance, and solutions to the problems he incurred, Titian produced a startling, yet profound work of art not immediately appreciated by the donor or the general public. But it was not long before Titian’s genius was understood, and then imitated.

Renaissance paintings were meant to be read, and were immediately understood by their contemporary viewers although today the meaning is often lost to us. The Assumption follows this norm; however, Titian’s altarpiece was more an interpretation of theme rather than subject. [4] This altarpiece has multiple layers of meaning; it is as much a response to the theological debate of the Immaculate Conception, a subject hotly argued in the Cinquecento, as it is about the Assumption of the Virgin. When the apostles came to bury Mary, the story goes, they were astonished to arrive and witness her assumption into heaven. Titan’s Assumption is, on one level, his interpretation of this even.[5] The realms of heaven and earth are unified in this composition depicting the Virgin’s ascent into heaven where an angel awaits with her crown and God glances lovingly toward her, ready to welcome her into her place in heaven. The minimal representation of earth is purposeful; the apostles, astonished by this wondrous event, are standing on firm ground, but, for theological reasons, Mary’s grave has no prominence in this painting. Mary’s upward movement towards God is apparent by the sweeping arm gestures, flow of drapery and direction of her glance. The look of joy and wonder on the face of the Virgin whose eyes are focused on God, and His expression of love and tenderness directed toward her reference a leitmotiv of their divine and loving relationship. [6] The “images of the Madonna were intended to convey at once several interrelated meanings, both sacred and civic”[7]; the first layer of interpretation is evident; the second layer is very much a response to a theological debate of the time.

The concept of the Immaculate Conception, firmly established in the Franciscan Order, was hotly debated during Titian’s lifetime. Franciscans firmly believed that Mary could not be the “Temple of Christ” if she was stained with Original Sin. Franciscan theologians argued that Mary was preordained to be saved, in advance, before time. Her advanced redemption anticipated our own redemption, just as her assumption into heaven anticipates the assumption of the faithful. To the Franciscans, who commissioned this altarpiece for their basilica dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, Titian’s painting was a visual affirmation of their doctrine and faith in the Immaculate Conception.

Titian unified his complex ideas with a boldly geometric composition, chromatic repetition and a combination of light and dark among other elements. To balance the effect of the delicate tracery of the apse windows on the viewer, Titian planned a bold and dramatic composition together with heroic figures on a monumental scale. Leaving behind the old method of equal attention to the depiction of every detail and element, Titian used different levels of finish, paying more attention to some areas and less to others. Understanding that the eye would complete unfinished areas, and areas of greater refinement would draw attention where the artist intended, directing the eye to the most important elements. Titian’s heroic figures were larger and therefore closer to the viewer; as Cole stated this brings the figures into our physical reality.[8] The triumphal arch is a compositional mainstay of both the Assumption and the interior of the Frari. The entrance to the choir was through and arched opening in the choir screen. Laity did not enter into the choir; their place in the basilica was in the nave; the choir was reserved for clergy. Lay worshippers view the Assumption of the Virgin, painted on an arched support closely matching the choir screen’s arch, through this opening which seems to frame the painting from the vantage point of the nave. An arch of angles, painted in golden hues closely relating to the gilt of the choir screen, follows the edge of the Assumption. The arch is a visual reminder of Mary’s triumphal entry into heaven and her triumph over death. Light is also used as a compositional element; an innovation Titian can lay claim to. The golden light at the top of the painting is evocative of the golden dome of heaven. Instead of representing an architectural dome, reminiscent of the one adorning San Marco, Titian has used unnatural light in a distinctive way. This light, that emanates from within the painting itself and casts no shadow, is the glow of heavenly light. It curves around the top of the pala as another visual reminder of the arch. The arc of putti serves a similar compositional function. Titian used the circle as a symbol of God and His endless nature and also His enduring love for Mary, and all of humanity. The circle is repeated throughout this painting. Light and shadow combine to create a circle across the top third of the Assumption. The golden light is circular, as is the arrangement of putti. When the painting is seen through the choir screen Mary’s head seems to be encircled by the arc of the screen and clouds depicted in the painting. Titian’s bold use of red was to become one of his hallmarks. Red is used, in differing values, to direct the eye throughout the composition; it is a unifying feature as well as an indication of the upward movement of the Virgin. The two red clad saints, together with the red of the Virgin’s dress, create an arrow pointing up to God, whose figure is painted with red highlights.

With the Assumption, Titian brought High Renaissance to Venice. Titian’s response to the problems presented by the interior of the Friar and subject matter were innovative and exceptional. The use of scale, light, color, and bold composition were an inventive synthesis of prevailing thoughts in art and religion at the time it was painted. With his reputation quickly gaining tremendous respect, Titian received a second commission for an altarpiece in the Frari, the donor, Jacopo Pesaro.

[1] David Rosand, Painting in Sixteenth-Century Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Revised Edition .

(New Haven: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 35.

[2]Deborah Howard, The Architectural History of Venice. ( New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers,

Inc. 1981), 75-6.

[3]Bruce Cole, Titian and Venetian Painting 1450-1590. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), 78.

[4]Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 98.

[5] Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986). 91-93.

[6]. Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 103.

[7]Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), xiv.

[8]Bruce Cole, Titian and Venetian Painting 1450-1590. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), 64.

Next:  Titian:  Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro

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[…] in 1396, is one my favourite churches in Venice because of the Tomb of Canova and Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin. I am not particularly religious but the character of this church is unforgettable with its […]

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