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Legends of the Madonna - The Assumption of the Madonnas

( Originally Published 1895 )



THE ASSUMPTION. The old painters distinguished between the Assumption of the soul and the Assumption of the body of the Virgin. In the first instance, at the moment the soul is separated from her body, Christ receives it into his keeping, standing in person either beside her death-bed or above it. But in the Assumption properly so called, we have the moment wherein the soul of the Virgin is reunited to her body, which, at the command of Christ, rises up from the tomb. Of all the themes of sacred Art, there is not one more complete and beautiful than this, in what it represents, and in what it suggests. Earth and its sorrows, death and the grave, are left below ; and the pure spirit of the Mother, again clothed in its unspotted tabernacle, surrounded by angelic harmonies, and sustained by wings of cherubim and seraphim, soars upwards to meet her Son, and to be reunited to him forever.

We must consider this fine subject under two aspects.

The first is purely ideal and devotional ; it is simply the expression of a dogma of faith, Assumpta est Maria Virgo in Coelum. The figure of the Virgin is seen within an almond-shaped aureole (the mandorla), not unfrequently crowned as well as veiled, her hands joined, her white robe falling round her feet (for in all the early pictures the dress of the Virgin is white, often spangled with stars), and thus she seems to cleave the air upwards, while adoring angels surround the glory of light within which she is enshrined. Such are the figures which are placed in sculpture over the portals of the churches dedicated to her, as the " Santa Maria del Fiore," — the Duomo, at Florence. She is not always standing and upright, but seated on a throne, placed within an aureole of light, and borne by angels, as over the door of the Campo Santa at Pisa. I am not sure that such figures are properly styled the Assumption ; they rather exhibit in an ideal form the glorification of the Virgin, another version of the same idea expressed in the Incoronata. She is here Maria Virgo Assumpta, or, in Italian, L'Assunta ; she has taken upon her the glory of immortality, though not yet crowned.

But when the Assumption is presented to us as the final scene of her life, and expresses, as it were, a progressive action — when she has left the empty tomb, and the wondering, weeping apostles on the earth below, and rises "like the morning " (quasi aurora surgens) from the night of the grave, — then we have the Assumption of the Virgin in its dramatic and historical form, the final act and consummation of her visible and earthly life. As the Church had never settled in what manner she was translated into heaven, only pronouncing it heresy to doubt the fact itself, the field was in great measure left open to the artists. The tomb below, the figure of the Virgin floating in mid-air, and the opening heavens above, such is the general conception fixed by the traditions of Art ; but to give some idea of the manner in which this has been varied, I shall describe a few examples.

1. Giunta Pisano, 1230. (Assisi, S. Francesco.) Christ and the Virgin ascend together in a seated attitude upborne by clouds and surrounded by angels ; his arm is round her. The empty tomb, with the apostles and others, below. The idea is here taken from the Canticles (ch. viii.), " Who is this that ariseth from the wilderness leaning upon her beloved ? "

2. Andrea Orcagna, 1359. (Bas-relief, Or San Michele, Florence.) The Virgin Mary is seated on a rich throne within the mandorla, which is borne upwards by four angels, while two are playing on musical instruments. Immediately below the Virgin, on the right, is the figure of St. Thomas, with hands outstretched, receiving the mystic girdle ; below is the entombment ; Mary lies extended on a pall above a sarcophagus. In the centre stands Christ, holding in his arms the emancipated soul ; he is attended by eight angels. St. John is at the head of the Virgin, and near him an angel swings a censer ; St. James bends and kisses her hand ; St. Peter reads as usual; and the other apostles stand round, with Dionysius, Timothy, and Hierotheus, distinguished from the apostles by wearing turbans and caps. The whole most beautifully treated.

I have been minutely exact in describing the details of this composition, because it will be useful as a key to many others of the early Tuscan school, both in sculpture and painting; for example, the fine bas-relief by Nanni over the south door of the Duomo at Florence represents St. Thomas in the sanie manner kneeling outside the aureole and receiving the girdle ; but the entombment below is omitted. These sculptures were executed at the time when the enthusiasm for the Sacratissima Cintola della Madonna prevailed throughout the length and breadth of Tuscany, and Prato had become a place of pilgrimage.

This story of the girdle was one of the legends imported from the East. It had certainly a Greek origin ; 1 and according to the Greek formula St. Thomas is to be figured apart in the clouds, on the right of the Virgin, and in the act of receiving the girdle. Such is the approved arrangement till the end of the fourteenth century ; afterwards we find St. Thomas placed below among the other apostles.

An account of the Assumption would be imperfect without some notice of the Western legend, which relates the subsequent history of the Girdle, and its arrival in Italy, as represented in the frescoes of Agnolo Gaddi at Prato).

The chapel della Sacratissima Cintola was erected from the designs of Giovanni Pisano about 1320. This "most sacred " relic had long been deposited under the high altar of the principal chapel, and held in great veneration ; but in the year 1312 a native of Prato, whose name was Musciatino, conceived the idea of carrying it off and selling it in Florence. The attempt was discovered, the unhappy thief suffered a cruel death, and the people of Prato resolved to provide for the future custody of the precious relic a new and inviolable shrine.

The chapel is in the form of a parallelogram, three sides of which are painted, the other being separated from the choir by a bronze gate of most exquisite workmanship, designed by Ghiberti, or, as others say, by Brunelleschi, and executed partly by Simone Donatello.

On the wall, to the left as we enter, is a series of subjects from the Life of the Virgin, beginning, as usual, with the Rejection of Joachim from the temple, and ending with the Nativity of our Saviour.

The end of the chapel is filled up by the Assumption of the Virgin, the tomb. being seen below, surrounded by the apostles; and above it the Virgin, as she floats into heaven, is in the act of loosening her girdle, which St. Thomas, devoutly kneeling, stretches out his arms to receive. Above this, a circular window exhibits, in stained glass, the Coronation of the Virgin, surrounded by a glory of angels.

On the third wall to the right we have the subsequent History of the Girdle, in six compartments.

St. Thomas, on the eve of his departure to fulfil his mission as apostle in the far East, intrusts the precious girdle to the care of one of his disciples, who receives it from his hands in an ecstasy of amazement and devotion.

The deposit remains, for a thousand years, shrouded from the eyes of the profane ; and the next scene shows us the manner in which it reached the city of Prato. A certain Michael, of the Dogomari family in Prato, joined, with a party of his young townsmen, the crusade in 1096. But, instead of returning to his native country after the war was over, this same Michael took up the trade of a merchant, travelling from land to land in pursuit of gain, until he came to the city of Jerusalem, and lodged in the house of a Greek priest, to whom the custody of the sacred relic had descended from a long line of ancestry ; and this priest, according to the custom of the oriental church, was married, and had "one fair daughter, and no more, the which he loved passing well," so well, that he had intrusted to her care the venerable girdle. Now it chanced that Michael, lodging in the same house, became enamored of the maiden, and not being able to obtain the consent of her father to their marriage, he had recourse to the mother, who, moved by the tears and entreaties of the daughter, not only permitted their union, but bestowed on her the girdle as a dowry, and assisted the young lovers in their flight.

In accordance with this story, we have, in the third compartment, the Marriage of Michael with the Eastern Maiden, and then the voyage from the Holy Land to the shores of Tuscany. On the deck of the vessel, and at the foot of the mast, is placed the casket containing the relic, to which the mariners attribute their prosperous voyage to the shores of Italy. Then Michael is seen disembarking at Pisa, and, with his casket reverently carried in his hands, he reenters the paternal mansion in the city of Prato.

Then we have a scene of wonder. Michael is extended on his bed in profound sleep. An angel at his head, and another at his feet, are about to lift him up ; for, says the story, Michael was so jealous of his treasure, that not only he kindled a lamp every night in its honor, but fearing he should be robbed of it, he placed it under his bed, which action, though suggested by his profound sense of its value, offended his guardian angels, who every night lifted him from his bed and placed him on the bare earth, which nightly infliction this pious man endured rather than risk the loss of his invaluable relic. But after some years Michael fell sick and died.

In the last compartment we have the scene of his death. The bishop Uberto kneels at his side, and receives from him the sacred girdle, with a solemn injunction to preserve it in the cathedral church of the city, and to present it from time to time for the veneration of the people, which injunction Uberto most piously fulfilled ; and we see him carrying it, attended by priests bearing torches, in solemn procession to the chapel, in which it has ever since remained.

Agnolo Gaddi was but a second-rate artist, even for his time, yet these frescoes, in spite of the feebleness and general inaccuracy of the drawing, are attractive from a certain naïve grace ; and the romantic and curious details of the legend have lent them so much of interest, that, as Lord Lindsay says, "when standing on the spot one really feels indisposed for criticism."

The exact date of the frescoes executed by Agnolo Gaddi is not known, but, according to Vasari he was called to Prato after 1348. An inscription in the chapel refers them to the year 1390, a date too late to be relied on. The story of Michele di Prato I have never seen elsewhere; but just as the vicinity of Cologne, the shrine of the " Three Kings," had rendered the adoration of the Magi one of the popular themes in early German and Flemish Art, so the vicinity of Prato rendered the legend of St. Thomas a favorite theme of the Florentine school, and introduced it wherever the influence of that school had extended. The fine fresco by Mainardi, in the Baroncelli chapel, is an instance ; and I must cite one yet finer, that by Ghirlandajo in the choir of S. Maria Novella ; in this last mentioned example, the Virgin stands erect in star-bespangled drapery and closely veiled.

We now proceed to other examples of the treatment of the Assumption.

3. Taddeo Bartolo, 1413. (Series at Siena, Palazzo Pubblico.) He has represented the moment in which the soul is reunited to the body. Clothed in a starry robe she appears in the very act and attitude of one rising up from a reclining position, which is most beautifully expressed, as if she were partly lifted up upon the expanded, many-colored wings of a cluster of an-gels, and partly drawn up, as it were, by the attractive power of Christ, who, floating above her, takes her clasped hands in both his. The intense, yet tender ecstasy in her face, the mild, spiritual benignity in his, are quite indescribable, and fix the picture in the heart and the memory as one of the finest religious conceptions extant.

I imagine this action of Christ taking her hands in both his must be founded on some ancient Greek model, for I have seen the same motif in other pictures, German and Italian ; but in none so tenderly or so happily expressed.

4. [Siena School] Berlin Gallery. A large altar-piece. Mary seated on a throne, within a glory of encircling cherubim of a glowing red, and about thirty more angels, some adoring, others playing on musical instruments, is borne upwards. Her hands are joined in prayer, her head veiled and crowned, and she wears a white robe, embroidered with golden flowers. Above, in the opening heaven, is the figure of Christ, young and beard-less (à l'antique), with outstretched arms, surrounded by the spirits of the blessed. Below, of a diminutive size, as if seen from a distant height, is the tomb surrounded by the apostles, St. Thomas holding the girdle. This is one of the most remarkable and important pictures of the Siena school, out of Siena, with which I am acquainted.

5. Ghirlandajo, 1475. The Virgin stands in star-spangled drapery, with a long white veil, and hands joined as she floats upwards. She is sustained by four seraphim. (Florence, S. Maria Novella.)

6. Raphael, 1516. The Virgin is seated within the horns of a crescent moon, her hands joined. On each side an angel stands, bearing a flaming torch ; the empty tomb and eleven apostles below. This composition is engraved after Raphael by an anonymous master (Le Maitre au dg). It is majestic and graceful, but peculiar for the time. The two angels, or rather genii, bearing torches on each side, impart to the whole something of the air of a heathen apotheosis.

7. Albert Direr. The apostles kneel or stand round the empty tomb ; while Mary, soaring upwards, is received into heaven by her Son ; an angel on each side.

8. Gaudenzio Ferrari, 1525. Mary, in a white robe spangled with stars, rises upwards as if cleaving the air in an erect position, with her hands extended but not raised, and a beautiful expression of mild rapture, as if uttering the words attributed to her, " My heart is ready ; " many angels, some of whom bear tapers, around her. One angel presents the end of the girdle to St. Thomas; the other apostles and the empty tomb lower down. (Vercelli, S. Cristoforo.)

9. Correggio. (Cupola of the Duomo at Parma, 1530.) This is, perhaps, one of the earliest instances of the Assumption applied as a grand piece of scenic decoration ; at all events, we have nothing in this luxuriant composition of the solemn simplicity of the older conception. In the highest part of the cupola, where the strongest light falls, Christ, a violently fore-shortened figure, precipitates himself downwards to meet the ascending Madonna, who, reclining amid clouds, and surrounded by an innumerable company of angels, extends her arms to-wards him. One glow of heavenly rapture is diffused over all ; but the scene is vast, confused, almost tumultuous. Be-low, all around the dome, as if standing on a balcony, appear the apostles.

10. Titian, 1540 (about). In the Assumption at Venice, a picture of world-wide celebrity, and, in its way, of unequalled beauty, we have another signal departure from all the old traditions. The noble figure of the Virgin in a flood of golden light is borne, or rather impelled, upwards with such rapidity, that her veil and drapery are disturbed by the motion. Her feet are uncovered, a circumstance inadmissible in ancient Art ; and her drapery, instead of being white, is of the usual blue and crimson, her appropriate colors in life. Her attitude, with out-spread arms — her face, not indeed a young or lovely face, but something far better, sublime and powerful in the expression of rapture — the divinely beautiful and childish, yet devout, un-earthly little angels around her — the grand apostles below — and the splendor of color over all— render this picture an enchantment at once to the. senses and the imagination ; to me the effect was like music.

11. Palma Vecchio, 1535. (Venice Academy.) The Virgin looks down, not upwards, as is usual, and is in the act of taking off her girdle to bestow it on St. Thomas, who, with ten other apostles, stands below.

12. Annibal Caracci, 1600. (Bologna Gallery.) The Virgin amid a crowd of youthful angels, and sustained by clouds, is placed across the picture with extended arms. Below is the tomb (of sculptured marble) and eleven apostles, one of whom, with an astonished air, lifts from the sepulchre a handful of roses. There is another picture wonderfully fine in the same style by Agostino Caracci. This fashion of varying the attitude of the Virgin was carried in the later schools to every excess of affectation. In a picture by Lanfranco, she cleaves the air like a swimmer, which is detestable.

13. Rubens painted at least twelve Assumptions with characteristic verve and movement. Some of these, if not very solemn or poetical, convey very happily the idea of a renovated life. The largest and most splendid as a scenic composition is in the Musée at Brussels. More beautiful, and, indeed, quite unusually poetical for Rubens, is the small Assumption in the Queen's Gallery, a finished sketch for the larger picture. The majestic Virgin, arrayed in white and blue drapery, rises with outstretched arms, surrounded by a choir of angels ; below, the apostles and the women either follow with upward gaze the soaring ecstatic figure, or look with surprise at the flowers which spring within the empty tomb.

In another Assumption by Rubens, one of the women exhibits the miraculous flowers in her apron, or in a cloth, I forget which; but the whole conception, like too many of his religious subjects, borders on the vulgar and familiar.

14. Guido, as it is well known, excelled in this fine subject— I mean according to the taste and manner of his time and school. His ascending Madonnas have a sort of aerial elegance which is very attractive ; but they are too nymph-like. We must be careful to distinguish in his pictures (and all similar pictures painted after 1615) between the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception ; it is a difference in senti-ment, which I have already pointed out. The small finished sketch by Guido in our National Gallery is an Assumption and Coronation together ; the Madonna is received into heaven as Regina Angelorum. The fine large Assumption in the Munich Gallery may be regarded as the best example of Guido's manner of treating this theme. His picture in the Bridge-water Gallery, often styled an Assumption, is an Immaculate Conception.

The same observations would apply to Poussin, with, how-ever, more of majesty. His Virgins are usually seated or reclining, and in general we have a fine landscape beneath.

The Assumption, like the Annunciation, the Nativity, and other historical themes, may, through ideal accessories, assume a purely devotional form. It ceases then to be a fact or an event, and becomes a vision or a mystery, adored by votaries, to which attendant saints bear witness. Of this style of treatment there are many beautiful examples.

1. Early Florentine, about 1450. The Virgin, seated, elegantly draped in white, and with pale blue ornaments in her hair, rises within a glory sustained by six angels ; below is the tomb full of flowers, and in front, kneeling, St. Francis and St. Jerome. (Collection of Fuller Maitland, Esq.)

2. Ambrogio Borgognone, 1500. (Milan, Brera.) She stands, floating upwards in a fine attitude : two angels crown her ; others sustain her ; others sound their trumpets. Below are the apostles and empty tomb ; at each side, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine ; behind them, St. Cosimo and St. Damian ; the introduction of these saintly apothecaries stamps the picture as an ex-voto — perhaps against the plague. It is very fine, expressive, and curious.

3. F. Granacci, 1530.2 (Pal. Ruccellai, Florence.) The Virgin, ascending in glory, presents her girdle to St. Thomas, who kneels ; on each side, standing as witnesses, St. John the Baptist, as patron of Florence, St. Laurence, as patron of Lorenzo de' Medici, and the two apostles, St. Bartholomew and St. James.

4. Andrea del Sarto, 1520. (Pitti, Florence.) She is seated amid vapory clouds, arrayed in white ; on each side adoring angels ; below, the tomb with the apostles, a fine solemn group; and in front, St. Nicholas, and that interesting penitent saint, St. Margaret of Cortona. (Legends of the Monastic Orders p. 339.) The head of the Virgin is the likeness of Andrea's infamous wife ; otherwise this is a magnificent picture.



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