Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Assumption

Juan de Valdes Leal (1622-1690)
Assumption of the Virgin c. 1658/1660
Oil on canvas,
Overall: 215.1 x 156.3 cm (84 11/16 x 61 9/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington D C

According to The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine written at the end of the thirteenth century:

“Observe that the glorious Virgin Mary was carried away, whole, up to heaven, with honour, joy and excellence. According to holy religious belief she was transported whole in body and soul.”

The question whether not only her soul was resurrected but also her body was a controversial one

Some artists kept the matter ambiguous in their depictions.

However after the Council of Trent with its regulations about religious art, the issue had to be considered again.

In 1583, Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti was asked for his opinion. A donor of a painting wanted to know if it was possible to depict the Assumption thus: two scenes taking place at different times - the Assumption taking place above an empty tomb with the Apostles looking at the empty tomb. Or whether it was possible to depict the Apostles watching the Virgin rising.

The Cardinal confirmed that traditional depictions should be used and not discarded.

He further confirmed that it was preferable to show some of the Apostles looking at the empty tomb and some of them at the figure of Mary rising. This was on the basis that by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles could envision what others could not see.

He reminded the memorialist that the Virgin should be depicted thus:

Radiant; a person of about 70 years of age; her body “sublime” and without colour and her clothes as white as snow; her hair loose rather than carefully plaited; and on her head a Crown to remind the viewer that she is Queen of Heaven

Perhaps not surprisingly, Pacheco declined to go into specifics in the same way as the learned Cardinal.

Pacheco in his Arte de la Pintura (1649) said that the Assumption was “a victory impossible to relate” (triunfo inenarrabile)

The caption for the painting above in The National Gallery in Washington DC describes the above painting:

“Juan de Valdés Leal's depiction characterizes the baroque style at its most operatic.”

The painting certainly meets the prescriptions of Cardinal Paleotti. It was painted in Seville one of the centres of the Counter Reformation in Spain.

The visual excitement of his style reflects his religious fervour. It is visionary rather than operatic. The subject matter allowed him to give full vent to his penchant for a vivid sense of movement, brilliant colouring, and dramatic lighting.

This depiction emphasises a key point of teaching on Mary: The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son's Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians