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Titian, Assumption of the Virgin

Titian, Assumption of the Virgin, c. 1516-18, oil on wood, 22' 6" x 11' 10" (Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Beth: We're in the church of Santa Maria dei Frari in Venice looking at the giant altar piece by Titian of the Assumption of the Virgin. Steven: It's 23 feet tall, it's a big painting. Beth: So that means that the figures at the bottom, the apostles, who gesture up toward Mary are over life size. Steven: There's a frenetic quality to those apostles. We don't even see the figure on the right in red's face, but he reaches up creating this wonderful entrance place for our eye, as he reaches up to Mary so our eye reaches up to Mary. She has her arms open in exition of prayer but also of acceptance to God the Father above her, whose arms are even more outstretched as he receives her in Heaven. That's precisely what the subject of the Assumption is. It is her moving from the physical world at her death and being assumed into Heaven. Beth: And you get the sense of the earthbound figures wanting to lift against the force of gravity and move with her up to Heaven. Steven: There's an interesting play of scale here. As we look up to God, who is even further away, the scale doesn't change so he is even more massive and expands across the sky. Beth: And the Virgin Mary looks somewhat foreshortened. We're looking at her from below and Mary is encircled by a halo of golden light and surrounding that are figures of angels supporting her on clouds. It is like a burst of spiritual golden light that emerges from the alter of this church and it's surrounded by Gothic windows. So this circle of light is framed by yet another circle of real light. Steven: There's a wonderful way that Titian has taken a straight on composition, remember this is over the high altar in the church, it is completely central. When you walk in you look straight down the nave, right at this massive painting and because it is so large, because you look at it so directly, it could become somewhat a symmetrical structure but what the artist has done instead is to create asymmetry even in the freeze of figures below because they gesticulated so many varied ways. And Mary is a series of soft arcs and diagonals. Look at the way the shadow of her drape moves around her left arm and then moves diagonally across the front of her body becoming a diagonal that offsets the centrality of this image. Beth: When you walk into the church you look directly at it, down at the nave. And in addition it's framed by a choir screen that has an arched opening, and so your gaze is directed toward this painting, especially difficult to experience this painting and the other painting that Titian made for this church, the Pesaro Madonna, in the reproduction. These are paintings that need to be seen in situ. Steven: They need to overwhelm you, from their scale, from the richness of their color and from the complexity of, not only their theological programs but also their compositions. (piano playing)