Titian’s altarpiece “The Assumption of the Virgin,” hanging in Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, is a large scale painting both in size and concept. It accommodates multiple characters, including the apostles, The Virgin Mary, and God, as well as countless angels and cherubims — all organized in dense but clearly discernible planes, insulated by their atmospheres.
According to the Catholic doctrine, the event took place on August 15 in Jerusalem, but otherwise nothing in the panel indicates as to the time and place of the proceedings. Titian builds his vision in an abstract space, using the frame (and color in some areas) as the natural boundary; by condensing the earthly and divine realms into a single framework he produces a metaphoric, mystical interpretation of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. For her, distance between between earth and heaven contracts to symbolical levels.
While the complex, multi-tiered composition may appear overwhelming in its sheer amount of detail and visual information, it adheres to Renaissance concepts of painterly design. Hierarchical order, compositional clarity, and overall harmony ensure that the grandeur and expressive sweep of the protagonists do not overwhelm, but inform the viewer.
The painting is often considered Titian’s early masterpiece, as this Wikipedia article indicates.
Composition and Meaning
Titian condenses the earth and the heavens – essentially the first and the second stage in Mary’s ascension – hence giving his work a temporal dimension as well. He then establishes an hierarchy in the number and size of the acting figures: the apostles on the first tier, Mary and multiple cherubims on the second, God, two pages, and the chorus on the third.
The higher the floor the fewer central figures there are, and the less space they occupy — their religious significance, however, increases. Such inverse progression can also be seen (in a downward direction) in Da Vinci’s Madonna and Child with St. Anne.
The apostles appear in a state of immense agitation, sending adoring and anxious glances towards the mother of Christ. Their placement at the lower level of the panel, closest to the altar, allows the Basilica visitors to identify with them first; the congregation, in all its multitude, thus comprises another notional level, one that looks up at (and to) the apostles. Naturally, the people need to aim even higher to see the Madonna and God himself.
Mary’s form and expression reveal a state of complete spiritual receptivenss and readiness. The sharp contrast of light and shadow across her face enhances the mysticism, further emboldened by the pouring gold that reflects in her eyes. Caught in a moment of epiphany, she herself becomes one, so powerful and awesome her reaction is to the vision of the Lord.
Titian’s precision in portraying emotional states extends further, to the figure of levitating God, who emerges as the calmest of all present. Perhaps not surprisingly, he exudes limitless confidence and fatherly affection: he is about to host a very important guest. The slightly diagonal line of his red cloak produces a parallel with Mary’s shoulder line, implying their affinity.
Besides fleshing out the shapes of the actors and the clouds, color plays the mystical role of announcing the Divine Presence. Titian chooses brilliant golden hues, which turn incandescent dazzling white just below the Lord’s apparition (which resembles the sun as a result), to accompany and communicate his arrival. Gold also marks a kind of crown, or halo, around the figure’s graying head.
The bluish sky, with a hint of sunrise (essentially the same golden tones that infuse the heavens, oozing down from above), stretches above the apostles and beneath the clouds: it plays the more neutral compositional role of dividing the earthly and divines realms. The clouds, lit from above and shaded below, assume a palpable quality, resembling cotton wool.
Red and green colored clothing ensures continuity and visual rhythm and interrelation between the three planes. From below, two saints dressed red act as a funnel, directing the eye towards Mary’s dress, who in turn leads to God’s own red tinted garment. The complementary green does just that, offsetting the red farther at the flanks, as well as balancing both the Virgin’s and Lord’s attire.
Colors thicken at either end of the painting, as the dark green earthy platform on which the apostles stand (and where Titian planted what seems like a sarcophagus with his name on it) turns black in some areas, while the chorus of flanking angels above absorbs the golden sheen, and becomes thick orange, and even brown. Thus color also assists in the logical task of delineating the scene.
Titian’s consistent, deliberate palette application coupled with a supernova-like eruption of light shows that he could employ color as an agent of order and of chaos at the same time. The mastery of two such contradictory types of coloration — the capacity to run the full gamut of the medium’s scope — both derives from and attests to the artist’s Venetian origin.
Furthermore, the intensity of some of the gestures betrays signs of departure from such Renaissance precepts as idealization and harmony. It holds the seeds of swirling action and effusive sentiment that defined the work of mannerist, and later baroque artists; for instance, the upward motion and the low point of view anticipates the outpouring drama of El Greco’s Disrobing of Christ — a painting by an artist who lived and studied in Venice, possibly under Titian’s tutorship.