Where else would you see a bright fiery sunset enlivening Renaissance palaces, but in Venice! This is a city of saints and their relics, great historical figures, and an immense gathering of some of the most important masterpieces of Western Civilization. Tintoretto and Veronese are everywhere. When as a doctoral student in Rome, I was studying the theology of Baroque art, and it was a special treat to take a break from the thesis and hop on the train to Venice, known for centuries simply as La Serenissima, the Most Serene. Like many well-preserved Italian cities, one can see here how much Faith and Civilization are united through the pursuit of Beauty. In Venice, Santa Maria della Salute does not stand against the beautiful palaces, but is in harmony with them, rather, radiating her beauty upon them. Thus, an artist such as Titian can be at home in painting scenes from the Greco-Roman world, to painting one of the most important masterpieces of sacred art, the Assumption.
Upon entering the church of Santa Maria dei Frari, one is confronted by the immensity of Titian’s masterpiece, The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (1516-1518). From the apse, it reigns over the entire edifice, directing our thoughts to the sacred mystery of Our Lady’s Assumption. It is so arresting that the busyness of the world outside is forgotten by a beauty that snatches us from our time in order to participate in God’s time. The painting preaches that which is of greatest importance, which is the presence of God seen through the eyes of Faith. Thus, our eyes are being trained to see a heavenly point of view, to see a Mystery that God has first seen and understood in its majesty.
In this painting, Titian depicts God the Father, coming down from the glory of heaven with outstretched arms, greeting his most pure daughter being lifted up to the heavens by angels. While on earth, obscuring her empty tomb, the Apostles are in astonishment at witnessing such a sacred and miraculous event. One sees in this painting the demarcation between the earthly and the heavenly, the sacred and the secular. The Eternal Father, Our Lady and the angels, are illuminated in gold, while the earth is enveloped in deep blue. Heaven shines from a divine radiance which makes a mere shadow the beauty of Creation. Being full of grace because of her vocation as the Mother of God, and through the merits of the Passion of her Divine Son, Our Lady is not meant to see the corruption of death, nor to rest in the tomb. She is assumed not by her own power, but by the power of God—here symbolized as cherubs lifting her up to meet the Heavenly Father. Our Lady through grace is elevated to participate in Divine Radiance.
For us on earth, this is a sign of great hope. Finding its purpose in the Liturgy, Titian’s Assumption, as situated in the eastern apse of Santa Maria dei Frari, shows us the mystery that we must hope for in the kingdom of heaven, to be in the company of not only the angels and the Blessed Virgin, but most of all, the Father Who is in the heavens. Its position within the church shows us that it is the Liturgy that leads us there. We see this especially in the Roman Canon where the unbloody sacrifice of the Body and Blood of the Lord is offered up for the honour and glory of the Eternal Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. It is in the movement of this offering toward the eternal Father, that we are offered up as well in Christ. In this fullest sense is the Liturgy a pilgrimage. Christ as High Priest and our Eternal Priest unites us to His Father by assuming our nature, and humbling himself that we receive him as a sacred victim in the Eucharist. By being assumed into heaven, Our Lady shows us the glory that we will at last taste if we are united to God on earth through the Paschal Sacrifice of Christ; this gift that elevates us from our sinful predicament, and transfigures us to participate in God’s Life. In this painting, look at her attributes; in her pose there is joy, hands lifted up in prayer, as she rises to God as pure and fragrant incense before Him. Her face desires sublime communion with God that will last forever, as the firmament gives way to the aura of heaven.
(*Featured image: Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, photo from Wikipedia.)