By Madeleine Stebbins
Tiziano Vecellio, known in English as Titian, was probably the greatest Venetian painter, recognized in his time as “The Sun Amidst Small Stars” (recalling the famous final line of Dante’s Paradiso).* He painted the huge (22 ½’ x 11 ½’) masterpiece of Mary’s Assumption for the Basilica of the Franciscan friars, appropriately called the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, in Venice.
This monumental painting is above the high altar in the apse of the gray Gothic stone basilica. One can imagine how in this setting it lights up the whole church with its vivid colors, bursting forth in a blaze of glory. The two different styles—the medieval Gothic and the high Renaissance—fit perfectly together here, contradicting any schoolmasterly disapproval of hybrid mixtures. The bold juxtaposition of the two beauties works.
The Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven was the belief of Christianity from the earliest centuries, long before it was officially declared a doctrine by Pope Pius XII in 1950. When her earthly life was finished, Mary “was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory” (CCC 966). This is a great mystery flowing from the mysteries in the Church’s tradition of the Immaculate Conception and the Incarnation, as well as from the Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension.
There are three tiers in this painting. On the lowest one we can see the Apostles, representing the Church of believers looking up to Mary with ardent longing and love as she leads them higher. She is a link between heaven and earth, always showing the way to God. Their hearts lifted up, they are inspired by her, the all pure, Immaculate one, without any stain of sin—all beautiful, all joy. We see the Church in supplication to the Virgin, asking her intercession, reaching up into the light from this dark valley of tears to touch the cloud she is on, as one of the Apostles is doing. Thus they are connected with her, a creature like them, but God’s elected one, unique in creation, full of grace.
She is lifted on a cloud surrounded by a host of joyous angels—little putti—like a mother and Queen. She is being carried into paradise, her red garment and blue mantle swirling about her, blown as at Pentecost by the wind of the Holy Spirit. Like the saints pictured in the catacombs, she is praying with arms outstretched and raised in what is called the orans position. Her right hand expressing reverence, her whole attitude is exultant as in her prayer, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Lk 1:46–47). Here she is jubilant, in an ecstatic rapture, in awe before the great God. She is like a soaring flame of love. The dazzling golden light between her and the Father gives us an inkling of the splendor of the eternal Light.
Titian here merely suggests the Deity, since the Godhead is indescribable, a Being so infinite in holiness that His name can hardly be uttered. However, the one thing Titian does express is that God is a Father, the Father of all mercies. He bends down with ineffable love and condescension, surrounded by angels in adoration, one of them bearing a crown for a Queen, the other apparently taking away a crown of thorns. He is a Father who loves tenderly and is about to receive Mary with arms wide open to embrace her.
The whole painting tells us of the majestic reality of the supernatural. Titian bears witness to the fact that deep in our souls we aspire to what is noble, to the things that are above (Col 3:1). Our hearts yearn for the transcendent, ultimately for God. Through this masterpiece we are taken up “from glory to glory as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor 3:18, Douay-Rheims).
Madeleine Stebbins is the author of Looking at a Masterpiece, a poignant work that helps readers contemplate timeless masterpieces to gain a deeper appreciation of art and the universal truths it illuminates.
*“The Sun Amidst Small Stars: Titian at the National Gallery,” Yale University Press, March 28, 2012, http://yalebooksblog.co.uk/2012/03/28/the-sun-amidst-small-stars-titian-at-the-national-gallery/.