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The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple

The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple

Tiziano Vecellio (1489/1490 – 1576). Galleria dell’ Accademia – Venice.

Mary’s presentation in the Temple is detailed in a chapter on the birth of the Virgin in the ‘Golden Legend’. When Mary was weaned at the age of three, Joachim and Anne brought her to the Temple with offerings. There were fifteen steps to the entry of the building. The ‘Golden Legend’ specifies that this corresponded to the fifteen Gradual Psalms. There was no other way to the altar, so the Virgin was set down at the lowest step and she mounted without help from anyone, alone, all the steps.

After the presentation, Joachim and Anne left their child in the custody of the Temple, together with other young maidens, to be devoted to praying and weaving. Mary stayed in the Temple until she was fourteen and ready to be married. Scholars have interpreted this story as the usual education of a girl of high Jewish rank.

The theme of the Virgin being presented to the Temple as a young girl going alone up monumental stairs was particularly popular in Venice. The great storyteller Vittore Carpaccio started the tradition of the subject being handled by the greatest masters so that even the greatest Venetian painter, Tiziano Vecellio, made a grandiose picture of it. The Galleria dell’ Accademia thus acquired a very large painting by Titian, originally commissioned for the Scuola della Carità. This Scuola was one of the most important charity and solidarity houses of Venice.

The picture dates from between 1534 and 1539. It hung in a long wall above two doors. Thus, the scene is long and horizontal. Titian blended his picture with the architecture of the room so that he emphasised the long horizontal lines.

Mary is indeed around three years old, a very young girl. She is seen ascending the steps. She is enveloped in a halo of holiness as she reaches out for the high priest. Titian used an image for the high priest that was not unlike Pietro Perugino’s priest of ‘Lo Sposalizio’ or of Carpaccio’s earlier painting. The high priest is thus an imposing figure of dignity, maybe resembling the Doges of Venice, as he is waiting at the upper entry of the Temple. There are indeed fifteen gradations between the ground and the priest, exactly as told in the ‘Golden Legend’. Below, Anne looks proudly at Mary. A Venetian court has assembled to accompany Anne and all witness the miraculous ascent of Mary.

Titian has given a lively scene of the dignitaries of the Scuola and added details such as a mother holding her baby and an old woman selling eggs, a true element of genre. Both Titian and Carpaccio needed a human element to fill in the space next to the stairs. Carpaccio used a young deer and a young boy as symbols of the sacrifice of Jesus; Titian however added a feature of everyday life. Thus he mixed aristocratic and common images, a feature that we feel often in the greatest art.

The overall impression one gets of his work is truly monumental due to the grand architecture of the Temple and its marvellous Greek columns. This architecture is conserved in the left side of the picture by a more civilian but also columned building from where the figures seem to emerge. Between the buildings Titian has painted a landscape of high mountains to create a far view, which brings space into the picture and thus widens far the room and the scene.

The ‘Presentation of the Virgin to the Temple’ is an unusual theme for Titian who was less a decorator than a portraitist and an artist of dramatic classical and religious themes. Titian favoured more intimate scenes. He rarely sought the monumentality of his contemporary Venetians Paolo Veronese or Jacopo Tintoretto. This picture proves that he was neither the lesser decorator nor the lesser storyteller if he put his mind to the task. Like Veronese and Tintoretto, Titian added to the grandeur of the Scuola by showing a scene of ascension to the higher values of life.

Mary is leaving the worldly life for higher purposes. This was also the underlying message of the Scuole.

But the picture is immensely sad. The young girl is so frail and small while she is mounting the steps. She is courageous, but alone. She has left her parents behind and her loneliness is underscored by the figure of Anne who looks at her child yet makes no movement of regret or of pride. The high priest and his helper, who is dressed to resemble a monk, await her with sympathy. They did not help Mary for she had to do this alone in all dignity. They will now try to give Mary some of the love she left.

This also was a message of the Scuole. When ruined merchants were abandoned by everyone, or when a merchant died and his family remained destitute, solidarity and some empathy was delivered by the Scuola institution. And the ruined merchants could come in dignity to the Scuole, but also appeal for support in humility. They had to climb the steps to the temple alone.

Venice was a town in which social institutions developed in direct line with the teachings of Jesus who had preached charity. Venice always remained a republic whereas other Italian cities all became for long periods of their history the prey of dictators. The town thus jealously and fervently defended its principles of charity and mutual support, which had led it through a turbulent history. The forefathers of the Venetians had fled after a war to an island in a lagoon in order to be able to stand firm for their ideas of communal life. Venice was a tolerant city overall, anyway more tolerant than any other community in Europe. It refused the excesses of the Inquisition to become dominant. It had merchant houses for very many foreign traders. It was tolerant for the Jewish community and it was to protect this community that the Doges ordained the Jews to live in a separate quarter called the ghetto. Venice had the trading associations organised the Scuole, maybe the fist kind of social security institutions on a massive scale in Europe. These ideas became an inner power that inspired Vence to further expansion in the Adriatic Sea until the republic dominated entirely that part of the Mediterranean. A strong community in which laudable feelings of solidarity were so prominent had become a conquering state.

In the ‘Presentation of the Virgin’ the high priest waits at the top of the stairs with open arms, as a Venetian Doge. The community elected the Doges. They always cared for Venetians in ways that were probably still inadequate, but even so exemplary for the other Italian cities. Venice was indeed one of the towns that was most tolerant to immigrants, to Jews and other minorities, and one of the towns with the best organised charity institutions.

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