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The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin

The Assumption of the Virgin

Guido Reni (1575-1642). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Lyon. 1637.

The Coronation of the Virgin

Fra Angelico (ca. 1400-1455). Musée du Louvre – Paris. Around 1430-1435.

The painting of the ‘Coronation of the Virgin’ of Fra Angelico is altogether in a very, very different style as compared to Caravaggio’s ‘Death of the Virgin’. Fra Angelico made the picture for the church of San Domenico in the village of Fiesole, which lies on a hill near Florence. The panel is a relatively early one: Fra Angelico was thirty to thirty-five years old. Yet, it is one of his more elaborate pictures. Fra Angelico has tried to give us a feeling of all the heavenly majesty he could imagine. The picture is exquisitely drawn in the best tradition of Florentine grace, but this is the grace of a heavenly painter itself at work, more than of a particular style.

Christ is on his throne on a high pedestal and Mary kneels at his feet. Mary kneels to receive the crown that will make her the Queen of Heavens. This is the final consecration of Mary’s position in the church. All around the throne angels are playing music: mandolins, violins, trumpets sound the heavenly music. All the saints have gathered too. There is Mary Magdalene with the balm vase, Saints Anne and Elisabeth, and Saint Catherine with the wheel on which she was tortured. The saints are painted in the traditional medieval way with the instruments of their martyrdom. Saint Peter is dressed in the magnificent, richly ornamented cope of the Popes. Most of the saints have their backs to the viewer, but some turn their heads in chatting: this is a lively scene where everybody shares in the glory and happiness of the Virgin.

The male saints are mostly to the left; the female saints stand to the right. This also was tradition. The lesser place on the left of Jesus was reserved to women.

The painting ‘The Coronation of the Virgin’ strikes by its light, pure colours and by the lavishly applied gold leaves. Fra Angelico always used these exquisite pure tones and the gold was used since very old times to indicate the majesty of the saints and of God. Fra Angelico let the crisp colours contrast with each other to every liveliness one can imagine. Mostly the blue and reds contrast thus. But Fra Angelico brought also balance in the colours. Indeed, there can be no disorder in the heavenly schemes. So, Saint Peter, the first Pope, is painted in a green cope. This colour is answered by a woman saint to the right who is also in green. The same symmetry can be found in the long blue cloak of the saint on the extreme left since a lady saint is also in blue to the right. The distances between these figures are the same. There is an equal distance between the blue-green-blue-green colour areas. The same symmetries in colour are applied in other places in the painting: see the pairs of angels that are playing music next to the Virgin: twice blue-red balances.

The symmetries of colours are accompanied by symmetries in lines. Look for instance at the long trumpets of the angels on both sides of the throne. The main scene in the middle of the painting, the coronation, is a traditional pyramid the top of which lies in the eye of God.

This is a picture one will not tire of admiring; so many elements to discover have been assembled in it in such an intelligent and harmonious way. Fra Angelico has brought all the glory of the church in this painting. There is no better example of the majesty of Christianity as it could be shown to the people of Florence.

Here is what Giorgio Vasari wrote around 1550 in the first edition of his book ‘The Lives of the Artists’ (translation by George Bull). “Of all the paintings he did, the one in which Fra Angelico surpasses himself and which displayed to perfection his talent and knowledge as a painter was a panel picture found in San Domenico on the left hand as one enters the church. This shows the Coronation of Our Lady by Jesus Christ, with a choir of angels and a multitude of male and female saints, so many in number, so beautifully depicted, with such variety in their attitudes and expressions that in looking at them one is overwhelmed with pleasure and delight. Those blessed spirits, one imagines, must appear in heaven just as Fra Angelico has painted them, or rather would appear so if they had bodies; because all the saints that are there, male and female, are full of life, their expressions are gentle and charming, and, moreover, the colouring could well be the work of one of the angels or saints themselves. So we can understand why the good friar was always called Fra Giovanni Angelico.” G46 There could be no better praise as this voice of the sixteenth century, a testimony to over three hundred years of admiration for the work of the angelic friar Giovanni who had only one aim in life: to exalt Jesus Christ and the holy dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Assumption of Mary

We should end our series of pictures of Mary with the ‘Coronation of the Virgin’ of Fra Angelico, because there is no better pictorial culmination in the history of painting. However, Guido Reni’s ‘Assumption’ is still a better fit to close the series because this image epitomises how millions of believers in countless generations saw the Virgin. The image presents the assumption of the Virgin into heavenly glory after her death. The concepts of the Assumption and of the Immaculate Conception are linked in a long history of bringing Mary to prominence. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, whereby the Virgin was considered to be free from the original sin, was systematised by Duns Scotus, a British theologian of the thirteenth century. But Pope Pius IX only defined it as dogma in 1854. When this dogma was promulgated, voices rose in the Catholic Church to accept also as dogma the concept of the Assumption. The church had to wait until 1950 however, when Pope Pius XII made that dogma also official.

These late dates show how constant the image of the Virgin Mother remained deep through the centuries in the minds of the Catholic Church. Yet, we sense also here some of the traditional hostility of the clergy to women. Catholic clergy contradictorily supported the image of Mary the mother. At the same time they could but see in her a woman. The image of Eve, the temptress who had brought evil and original sin to men was always strong in the mind, even knowing that Mary had been totally obedient as opposed to Eve. However, God had lain an enmity between the serpent of evil and woman. Mary fulfilled this prophecy. The need to enforce the idea of victory of humility and gentleness over violence grew with the ages and culminated in the ever more glorious image of Mary.

This kind of picture of the Assumption has hung by the millions in the humblest houses of Europe. Guido Reni’s image is the ideal of the glorious Mary. She opens her arms both to the heavens and to the love of the viewers. Her face radiates with sanctity. Angels support her and bring her gently to the heavens. The ‘Assumption’ is a suave, sentimental picture of devotion. One can easily pray to this picture. Mary’s open arms also reminded of the cross on which her son Christ died. It was a picture of a woman and saint who could intercede. By intently looking at Mary’s face, one could feel the same radiations of piety and love, the empathy, pity and love of the mother of all men and women. Mary’s opening arms were ready to receive you, and her arms open the clouds as if to break sorrows, pierce secrets, and give assurance of the new hope that is the aim of all prayer.

Guido Reni has painted here an image as poetical, as lyrical as Raphael’s Madonna’s. Reni has stylised the image, as Raphael would have done. Perspective is added in the elongation of the body of Mary and in the long, flowing robes. Mary’s body undulates gracefully so that energy and dynamism is brought in the picture. The elevation to the skies is thus caught on the canvas, yet the picture is peaceful.

Guido Reni worked in Bologna. He was born there in 1575; he died in 1642. Thus, Reni worked in the transition period when pictures of Catholic religion were not anymore the only pictures produced. The ‘Assumption’ was made for a church of Perugia, commissioned by a cardinal of Ravenna. When the French Revolutionary Army passed Perugia in 1797, the picture was taken away with many other masterpieces of Italian art and transported to France. The French armies were savage, but they were also accompanied by men who knew to appreciate art and who took only the best to their home country. Guido Reni had made various similar images of the Assumption of Mary. His images had success.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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