Assumption of the Virgin Mary in art

The Assumption of the Virgin Mary does not appear in the New Testament, but appears in apocryphal literature of the 3rd and 4th centuries, and by 1000 was widely believed in the Western Church, though not made formal Catholic dogma until 1950.[1] It first became a popular subject in Western Christian art in the 12th century, along with other narrative scenes from the Life of the Virgin, and the Coronation of the Virgin. These "Marian" subjects were especially promoted by the Cistercian Order and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153).[2]

Rubens, 1626, the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp

Literary accounts with more detail, such as the presence of the Apostles, appeared in late medieval works such as the Golden Legend, and were followed by artists.[3] By the end of the Middle Ages, large and crowded altarpieces gave the artist the opportunity to show his virtuosity in composition, colouring and figure poses. After the Reformation, it was used to assert the Catholic position, rejected by Protestants.[4]

Nicola Filotesio, 1515–16, Death of the Virgin below, Assumption above.

Normally accompanied or carried by angels (but not usually carried by Christ, as in Orthodox icons) the Virgin Mary rises passively heavenward, where she is to be crowned by Christ, while the Apostles below surround her empty tomb as they stare up in awe. God the Father or Christ (as in the Orthodox Dormition) may be seen in the heavens above. She may be surrounded with an almond-shaped mandorla. Her hands are usually clasped in prayer in medieval images, but later may be thrown wide, as she gazes up, as in Titian's highly influential altarpiece for the Frari Church (1515–18) in Venice, which agitated the previously decorous apostles.[5] Examples include works by El Greco, Rubens (several compositions),[6] Annibale Caracci, and Nicolas Poussin, the last replacing the Apostles with putti throwing flowers into the tomb.[7]


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