Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

A Chancel Image: Assumption of the Virgin

August 15th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously here

"Assumption of the Virgin", Tiziano Vecelli (Tiziano Vecellio; "Titian"), 1516–1518, Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, Italy

There are many Christian scenes, subjects, symbols, and themes that could effectively be depicted in a chancel area. The one we examined just previously in this series was a somewhat complicated combination of -among other things- Biblical narrative, symbolism, and dogmatic catechesis. In fact all of those aspects of visual imagery were important during the 4th through 6th centuries when similar chancel images were created. That period saw numerous superficial conversions and heretical challenges. Keeping the newcomers from backsliding into paganism or confusing heresy for truth was a major problem for bishops (somewhat similar to our situation, today!).

One of the most beautiful altar paintings from our tradition requires a little less intellectual effort and employs visual drama to encourage us on to our goal of eternal happiness with God in heaven. It also illustrates a dogma of the faith but in a way that visually complements the action at the altar beneath the painting’s bottom frame. The Assumption of the Virgin (1516-1518) is a large oil painting located in the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (St. Mary of the Friars) in Venice. “I Frari”, as it is known locally, is a major church in Venice, Italy. It stands on the Campo dei Frari at the heart of the San Polo district of the city. The church is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary (Assunzione della Beata Virgine) and is maintained by the Franciscan Friars. It has a monastic type choir area between the main body of the church and the chancel but the painting of the Assumption can be seen through the entrance archway of the choir.

The painting was not initially well received by the friars because of the innovative style for the time and for the bright colors, especially the use of an abundance of red, but these features would later make it famous. The picture is divided into three different levels. In the lowest level, the apostles are shown reacting to the assumption of the Virgin Mary, who, in the middle level, is depicted ascending to heaven. Awaiting her and almost drawing her upward is the figure of God in the top most level.  Standing on a cloud to the right is an angel holding a crown of glory to be placed on Mary’s head the moment God gives the signal. 

This is a visually powerful design that pulls our eyes heavenward. The color red forms a triangle that points up. The bottom two corners of the triangle are formed by the red robes of two apostles, one apostle with his back to us on the right and the other, on the left, facing us. The apex of the triangle is the red tunic of the Virgin. Red also appears, in heaven, on God’s robe further drawing our eyes upward and acting like an exclamation point to the movement. 

A net of putti and clouds pull the figure of Mary upward, and a glorious golden aureole fills the background of the top third of the painting. 

The movement is ever upward. The arms of some of the apostles and the leg of one of the putti on the right draw our eyes up to the middle level where Mary is; some of the apostles might actually be trying to pull Mary back down. The crescent arc formed by the putti and clouds lift Mary upward and the Virgin’s arms continue that upward direction. The movement terminates at the figure of God the Father and His attending angels who, all together, form a slightly tilting horizontal line, or ceiling on the action. 

Everything is in motion. The scene is exciting –thrilling, even. 

Consider that this painting is placed directly over the altar and visualize the moment of consecration as the host and chalice are elevated for the congregation to see.1 

The All Holy Mother of God is the first to enjoy the benefits from the redemptive sacrifice of her Son, the sacrifice celebrated and brought forward in time upon the altar below the painting. She precedes us. She is the first. We look forward to following her. 


1The painting was created for the altar that is attached to the back wall. The experience of the painting and liturgy together is not quite so strong with the free-standing altar.


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