Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin (the Assunta) is arguably the greatest Venetian painting in the world.* We’re lucky that we can see it in the church for which Titian painted it almost 500 years ago.
Born in the Dolomites, Tiziano Vecellio was sent to Venice to study art when he was 10 years old. He first studied in a mosaic workshop, then apprenticed to the Bellini family, and later studied and worked with Giorgione. Titian was still very young (in his 20’s) when he was commissioned to paint the Assunta for Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice’s enormous Franciscan church. It was a prestigious commission for any artist, especially a young one, but Titian wasn’t really in the position where he was still trying to prove himself. Bellini and Giorgione had both recently died, so Titian must have known that he was the greatest living artist in town and perhaps this gave him the confidence to do a painting unlike any ever done before.
Not a Catholic, I’m still getting up to speed on the subject matter of some of these church paintings. In this one, the Virgin Mary has died but because she is divine, her soul doesn’t leave her body; instead, she just ascends to Heaven IN her body. She’s levitating upwards on a cloud of squirming angels. The disciples who witness this are understandably shocked and amazed. Mary is gorgeous, both powerful and humble. God the father and more angels are waiting to receive her.
That’s just the plot and the scene – the REAL story of this painting is Titian’s absolute mastery of color and light and vertical movement, and the fact that he captured such a dramatic moment without being melodramatic. And did I mention the color?!
Hard to understand now, but the Franciscan friars had reservations about this painting once it was completed and weren’t sure if they wanted it in their church. Perhaps Mary was too beautiful and passionate, or maybe the painting as a whole was theologically controversial in some way? Maybe it was simply too modern? This happened to Titian a number of times over his career – he must have gotten a bit tired of these non-artist types second-guessing his work! Fortunately, after representatives of the Pope and various ambassadors expressed interest in buying it, the Franciscans decided to keep it and in 1518, they put the Assunta on the high altar of their church where it belongs.
The painting is 23 feet high which makes it perfect for this huge church. And it’s very clear that Titian spent some time studying the space. There are several different frames for this painting –there’s the actual marble one around the painting itself, and then there’s the one created by the ghostly spirit-angels that Titian painted around the top of the panel. There’s another frame behind the painting created by the apse of the church itself with its lovely gothic windows and tracery.
There’s also the frame created by the choir stalls that stand between the entrance to the church and the high altar. When you first walk into the Frari, the painting is very far away and the choir blocks the view. But as you approach, you see the painting through the entrance to the choir and it’s spectacular, and the painting gets more amazing the closer you get (and it’s a long walk!).
Hard to imagine this church without it, but the painting was removed and resided elsewhere for over 100 years. The French moved it to the Accademia in 1817; they intended to take it to the Louvre in Paris but never did, thank goodness, because it might still be there today. Later in the 19th century during the Austrian occupation, the painting went to Vienna and then when Venice became part of unified Italy, it was returned to the Accademia. During World War I, the Assunta and the horses of San Marco were moved to the mainland for safekeeping – it’s interesting that of all the many thousands of treasures in Venice, these were the ones that they most wanted to protect.
A very happy ending to this story – in 1918, the painting was returned to the Frari. Kudos to whoever had the power and good sense to accomplish this. Technically, I guess it shouldn’t matter where the painting is. It would be a masterpiece whether we see it in the Accademia or the Louvre or the Met. But it would NOT be the same experience.
What is the purpose of having art in a church anyway? It’s more than decoration and story-telling, although those are part of it, and I’m sure there are less lofty motives like status and showing how wealthy your church is (we have two Titians!).
But the larger purpose is to create sacred space where people can have an experience of the divine or the mystical or whatever you choose to call it. Or as the Buddhists say, to move us from small mind to Big Mind.
Centuries ago, churches needed to have saints’ relics or a miracle-working icon or some kind of object that offered the hope of a magical, mystical healing experience to the people. But today, it’s the art in the churches (and the churches themselves) that create the magic.
This is one of the most amazing Madonnas in a city that’s full of them. I’d put her in the miracle-working category. Not that people have attributed healings or miracles to her, but just that it’s a perfect painting in the perfect space, and seeing it there is such an amazing experience.
Other paintings in the Frari:
*Other candidates for the greatest Venetian painting surely include Giorgione’s The Tempest, various other Titians in museums around the world (right now, I’d vote for his Bacchus and Ariadne in London’s National Gallery), and any of several altarpieces by Bellini. And I’m sure the Tintoretto camp would have a few to add to the list (though they might have trouble narrowing it down!). Other ideas?