National Gallery of Art/Fondazione Musei Civici/Gallerie dell’Accademia/Yale University Press, 293 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper)
Titian’s painting The Assumption of the Virgin, created between 1516 and 1518, which hangs over the main altar of the Frari in Venice, is a composition of supreme simplicity. In the lower part of the painting stands the crowd, utterly surprised at what is transpiring, some of them with arms outstretched. They are wearing beautiful robes, as is the Virgin, who, above them, is on her way from earth to heaven. Her arms are stretched out too. She is surrounded by clouds and angels. Above her waiting is God himself.
The painting is a single image, even though it is set on three levels, even though there are crowds of disciples and many angels, even though the pale blue light of the earthly sky is set against the glowing light above, the light of heaven. It is startlingly disciplined and direct. The figures below are merely there to allow us to see the Virgin and the miracle more vividly. The Virgin’s robes and her pose as she ascends, or is assumed body and soul toward eternity, catch our attention and hold it. The image moves upward and so does the eye. This is a great drama, the apotheosis of Marian worship. The painting, in all its grandeur, its vertical sweep, does not merely reflect one of the exalted moments in the life of Mary, but, confidently, bravely, seems to enact its glory.
Less than ten minutes’ walk away is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. In an upstairs room in this secular building is Tintoretto’s astonishing painting of the Crucifixion, created in 1565. It is seventeen feet high and forty feet wide, taking up a full wall of the somberly lit room. If we compare it with Titian’s Assumption, it makes clear Tintoretto’s concern with worldliness and untidiness against Titian’s fascination with the power of finish. Tintoretto is as interested in earth as he is in heaven, in light from the sky as much as light from a halo. This big, bustling horizontal painting pulls the eye back and forth. It can hardly be called religious since its interest is in the ordinary beside the saintly, in what the Crucifixion might have felt like at the time rather than what it came to mean in the pages of the New Testament.
Tintoretto does not attempt to capture the Crucifixion as a single scene in all its pathos and possibility, but rather as part of a busy day, as the center of a great deal of activity, the humans like ants going about their business. This painting, which John Ruskin described as “beyond all analysis, and above all praise,” establishes pattern only by abandoning easy symmetries and replacing them with teeming life, working with the tension between…
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