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Assumption Iconography: Themes and Evolution

Assumption Iconography: Themes and Evolution

– Father Johann Roten, S.M.

Mary's Assumption into Heaven

Antonio da Correggio, Assumption of the Virgin, 
Dome of the Cathedral of Parma (1522-1530)

The Announcement of Mary's Death
The Apostles Bid Farewell to Mary
Mary's Death – Eastern Artists
Mary's Death – Western Artists
The Blessed Virgin's Funeral
Mary is Assumed Into Heaven
Christ Crowns Mary
God the Father Crowns Mary
Coronation by the Trinity
Angels Crown Mary
The Woman of the Apocalypse in Context
The Woman Alone
The Strahlenden Madonnen

The Assumption – One of Four Marian Solemnities

There are four solemnities honoring the Mother of Jesus that are kept throughout the Catholic church: The Immaculate conception (December 8), her divine Motherhood (January 1), the Annunciation (March 25), her Assumption (August 15). The last named has become the most celebrated, giving rise to all manner of festivities and to a great variety of pictorial representations.

The New Testament says nothing about Mary's death and Assumption, but as Pius XII states in the constitution Munificentissimus Deus, which defined belief in the Assumption as a matter of faith:

"All the arguments and considerations of the Fathers and theologians rest on Sacred Scripture for their ultimate foundation. The Scriptures present the beloved Mother of God as most intimately united with her divine Son as ever sharing in his lot. Hence, it seems all but impossible to see her who conceived Christ. . .as separated from him, if not in soul, yet in body, after her life on earth was over. . .Seeing that by preserving her from the corruption of the tomb he could give her such great honor, we must believe that he actually did so."

Speaking more poetically, St. John Damascene (d. 749), who is called the Doctor of the Assumption, writes, "On this day the sacred and life-filled ark of the living God, she who conceived her Creator in her womb, rests in the Temple of the Lord that is not made with hands. David, her ancestor, leaps, and with him the angels lead the dance."

Documentation testifies that the feast was celebrated first in the Eastern Church in the second half of the sixth century. Pope Sergius I (687-701) ordered its observance in Rome. At first it was kept as a memorial of Mary's death, her falling asleep (Koimesis), and it gradually came to be a commemoration of her Assumption as such.

An apocryphal work of the fourth century, the Transitus Mariae (The Passing of Mary), which appeared in several languages and in many versions, no doubt had some effect in spreading belief in the Assumption. But the Church's faith in this teaching is not based on it. As one Anglican scholar put it, "The belief was never founded on that story. The story was founded on the belief, and testifies to the fact of the belief."

Episodes or Stages of the Assumption Iconography

Over the centuries Christian art has given varied expression to belief in Mary's Assumption. We can divide the progress of these expressions into three principal "moments": Mary's falling asleep (her death), her rising to heaven (the Assumption), and finally her coronation. Each of these moments gave rise to some ancillary episodes so that at length we can enumerate the following stages:

1. The Angel Gabriel comes to Mary and announces that in three days she will die. He presents her with a palm, symbol of the victory over sin and death that she shares with her Son.

2. In answer to her earnest prayer, all the Apostles arrive to bid their farewell.

3. Mary dies, and Christ comes to take her soul to heaven.

4. In solemn procession, the Apostles bear Mary's body to her grave.

5. On the third day, her body is taken from the tomb by angels who carry it to heaven. Later versions picture Mary rising by herself (like her Son at His Ascension) but still accompanied by hosts of angels.

6. Mary is crowned as Queen of Heaven and Earth, a final completion, as it were, of her Assumption. This has been depicted in four different ways: Often she is crowned by her Son alone; sometimes by one or two angels; on occasion by the Father alone; frequently by all Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity together. The first and last of these proved to be the most popular versions.


The Announcement of Mary's Death

Our survey of art works centered on the Assumption begins with the legend that the Angel Gabriel was sent to tell Mary that in three days she would die and be reunited with her Son in heaven. Gabriel gives her a palm, symbol of her victory over sin and death. It is to be carried before her coffin as her body is taken in procession to its grave.

Our first picture is from an English manuscript of the early 1170's, the so-called York Psalter, which contains not only the Book of Psalms but other prayers as well. English Psalters at this time included a series of illustrated pages preceding the text. Pictures dealing with Mary's death were a new theme, however, and that series is perhaps the most striking feature of the York Psalter. The book is housed at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, Scotland.

York Psalter

From the early fourteenth century, we have several panels from the Majesta, created for the main altar of the Cathedral of Siena by Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255-before 1319).  Done between 1308 and 1311, the seventy-five panels of its two sides depict chiefly incidents from the lives of Jesus and Mary.  The top tier of the front side contains six panels dealing with Mary's death.  Most of the work is now in the Diocesan Museum of the Cathedral at Siena.  Four panels have been lost, and eight are in other museums around the world.

Majesta, Cathedral of Siena by Duccio di Buoninsegna

From later in the same century comes a sculptured work by Andrea Orcagna (ca. 1308-1368). This is a panel from what is known as the Tabernacle in Orosanmichele, a church in the heart of downtown Florence. The tabernacle, signed by Orcagna as completed in 1369, is a highly ornate marble shrine, like a small chapel, that houses an image of the Madonna and Child. The panel seen here is found in the bottom tier of the tabernacle's east side.

Tabernacle in Orosanmichele

The fourth illustration chosen for this incident is from the Book of Hours made by the artist Jean Fouquet (1420-1481) for Etienne Chevalier (1410-1474), court official and treasurer to King Charles VII. Fouquet produced the book between 1453 and 1456. The volume became will known in its day and served as a model for many other Books of Hours. It has been said, in fact, that all miniature painting up to the time of Louis XII (1462-1515) was more or less dominated by Fouquet's art.

Sometime in the late seventeenth century, the Chevalier Hours was dismembered, its illuminations widely scattered. Of the presumed sixty original pictures, only forty-seven are known to survive. Forty were purchased by the Duc d'Anmale in 1891 and deposited in his chateau at Chantilly. There they remain as the property of the Institut de France.

The Book of Hours


The Apostles Bid Farewell to Mary

Then she learns of her approaching death, Mary prays that the Apostles would come that she might see them one last time. The TRANSITUS MARIAE tells of their coming on clouds from the places where their missions have taken them. At this time Mary gives the palm to John and warns the Apostles that the Jews will attempt to dishonor her body as it is being carried to the grave.

The York Psalter shows Mary giving the palm to John. Peter stands slightly behind John, and behind him is a group of three Jews.

The York Psalter is an English manuscript of the twelfth century now in the Hunterian Museum of Glasgow, Scotland.

Duccio pictures this arrival twice. In the one scene, we see the Apostles at the left, greeting one another as they arrive. Peter, a white-bearded figure, shakes hands with Paul, often portrayed as bald. At the right, John kneels before Mary. Behind her is the palm, studded with stars, that she will give John to carry.
The second scene shows Mary sitting up in the bed, surrounded by the Apostles. John is at her right, holding the palm branch. Peter sits at her left, looking into the distance, while Paul stands, gesturing with his hand as if addressing the group.

These two scenes appear at the top of the front face of Duccio's masterpiece, the Maesta, an altarpiece created for the Cathedral of Siena between 1308-1311. While parts of it have disappeared and eight panels are in museums elsewhere, most of the work is now housed in the Museum of the Cathedral of Siena.


Mary's Death-Eastern Artists

The Eastern Churches speak of the Blessed Virgin's entrance into heaven as her KOIMESIS, her falling asleep. All versions of this theme follow a highly uniform pattern as does this contemporary rendering.

Mary lies on a richly decorated bier. The apostles in mourning are arranged on either side. Peter, in front at the left, swings a censer. Opposite him, on the right stands Paul. Christ in glory dominates the center. In his hands he holds the soul of his Mother, depicted as a small doll-like figure swaddled in white. Angels form a choir around the mandorla that encircles Christ. At the top hovers a six-winged seraph, member of the highest choir of angels. Behind the Apostles are three bishops, disciples of the Apostles, traditionally named Dionysius, Hierotheus and Timotheus. They are said to have been the first to bring to others the news of Mary's Assumption. In back of them are several women mourners. The lighted candle in front of the bier is a sign of the desire to prolong life.

'Our second example, much simplified, is a Byzantine ivory from the second half of the tenth century. Here Christ holds Mary's soul aloft, giving it to the two angels above Him. This plaque is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

From the first half of the fifteenth century comes this Russian icon, a product of the Tver School of Painting. Because of the beautiful blue background, it is known as the "Heavenly Blue Dormition." An unusual feature: In the sky we see the apostles, each accompanied by an angel, arriving on clouds to be present at Mary's death. The icon is now at the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow.

From the second half of the fifteenth century we have this icon from Crete. It appears to have been done by two artists: one working in the Byzantine style as seen in the figures at the left; the other, in the more naturalistic Western style, visible in the varied poses of those at the right. A further detail to be noted: the seraph holds two standards, such as one sees in pictures of Roman military units.

An interesting variant is this work from Romania, a hinterglass icon painted by Pavel Zamfir in 1897. All the Apostles are grouped behind Mary's bier. In the center are the three great hierarchs of the Eastern Church: Basil the Great, John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzus. Christ is pictured in half figure on a cloud as he welcomes Mary into heaven, holding her hand. The piece is part of the Jianu Collection in the Museum at Oltenita, Romania.

This piece is a slightly modified version of a thirteenth century icon in the Stavronikita Monastery at Mount Athos. Stavronikita is the youngest and smallest of the twenty monasteries of Athos, the Holy Mountain located on a peninsula in northeastern Greece. In the half circle at the top of the icon, two angels prepare to receive Mary's soul.

Our last version is from Ethiopia. Here the Apostles are arranged in groups of five with two apostles pictured at the bottom of the picture. The two angels in front carry both a censer and a cross. The two at the back carry swords and palm branches, symbols indicating the presence of the heavenly armies at the end of Mary's earthly life. This icon belongs to the Ethiopian College at the Vatican.


Mary's Death-Western Artists

Though they retain some details found in Eastern Church art, Western artists completely transform the scene of Mary's death. Typical is this work by the Elder Hans Holbein (ca. 1493-ca. 1526). The dying Mary lies in an elaborate canopy bed. Her soul, pictured as a young girl, arrayed in a regal garment, is already entering heaven, where she is greeted by Christ and the angels. John leans toward Mary, bearing the palm of victory in his right hand as he offers a candle to her with his left. Peter, dressed in a cope, prepares to sprinkle Mary's body with holy water. Philip, carrying his tall cross-staff, steps into the room. One Apostle, seemingly indifferent to what is taking place, sits at the foot of the bed reading. The painting is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, Hungary.

This work of the late thirteenth century follows Eastern models rather closely. Peter and Paul appear to be placing Mary's body on its bier. Christ holds Mary's soul, but the figure is not swaddled. It is dressed in a long tunic, rests on Christ's arm and raises both hands. The mitred bishop at Christ's right represents James the Younger, first bishop of Jerusalem, where (according to one tradition) Mary died. The figure to Christ's left, with sword and cross-staff is Philip. This wood panel, formerly in the Augustinian cloister at Wennifsen is now in the Landesmuseum of Hannover, Germany.

This painting by Fra Angelico (1400-1455) marks a further departure from Eastern versions of Mary's death. Here her soul is depicted as a full-standing figure and no longer as a child. A cruciform nimbus surrounds Christ's head, and all the Apostles wear haloes, inscribed with their names. At the far right, John carries the palm of victory. Angels stand at the extremities of the picture. One has a censer, another a holy water stoup, and a third carries a very tall candle. Dating from 1435, the work is now in the Museum of San Marco in Florence. It was originally connected to the painting of the Coronation of Mary which is in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence. This Coronation will introduce another section of our survey.

With Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) we come to a more purely Western treatment of Mary's death. Here she is depicted as a much older woman. Peter in priestly garb stands in the center reading the prayers for the dying. Paul is at his left. Standing in front at the viewer's left, the youthful John bears the palm of victory. Four of the haloed Apostles carry candles. There are only eleven of them, following the popular tradition that Thomas came late to the burial. The painting, dated 1462, is now at the Prado in Madrid, Spain.

Like some other fifteenth-century masters from the North, Hugh van der Goes (1440?-1482) shows us Mary propped up in a canopied bed. Her soul is not pictured, but Christ descends with two angels to bear it to heaven. As in Holbein's work viewed earlier, the Apostles are scattered around the room in various poses, their faces registering a numbing sadness and grief. (Goes is noted for his ability to portray psychological and emotional states). Peter stands, holding a candle being lit by another apostle. John, on the other side of the bed has both hands raised in prayer. Paul sits on the ground at the left, one hand resting on the bed. The painting is in the Goreninge Museum of Bruges, Belgium.

In this engraving, Martin Schongauer (ca 1450-1491) depicts Mary as a young woman. The Apostles are scattered in groups of two and four. John presents the candle to Mary. Behind him stands Peter, holding a closed book in his left hand and he looks towards Mary anxiously. His brother Andrew (with his unkempt hair) at his left, holds a holy water stoup. At the foot of the bed, Philip looks over the shoulder of an Apostle with an open book. He holds his tall cross-staff in his right hand and with his left holds a pair of spectacles against the book. Schongauer began producing engravings around the year 1470. They were widely distributed during his lifetime and were greatly admired.

Our last version for this part of our survey is a tapestry from the Cathedral of Strasbourg, France. It is one of a set of fourteen on the life of Mary that were produced between 1640 and 1657 for the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. They were paid for in part by Cardinal Richelieu. The Cathedral chapter of Strasbourg purchased them from Notre Dame in 1789.

Here Mary dies in a very luxurious setting, a palace of the seventeenth century. Dressed in a bright orange-gold robe, Peter stands at Mary's head, reading from a large book. John is behind him, looking up to heaven in awe. The other apostles kneel or stand about in a variety of dramatic poses.


The Blessed Virgin's Funeral

As already noted, Mary, in the TRANSITUS MARIAE, predicts that after she dies the Jews will attempt to dishonor, that is, burn her body. In the Chevalier Hours, Fouquet created a highly dramatic picture of this attempt during Mary's funeral procession. As John carrying the palm of victory, heads the procession, and Peter and Paul follow as lead pall bearers, an armed mob comes in pursuit. A soldier in gold armor moves to overturn the bier but staggers back, overcome by some supernatural forces while angels above blind the rest of his entourage.

A thirteenth-century (1232) Gospel book from Armenia, the Evangeliary of Tarmanchats, depicts the scene as most Eastern artists did. In general, the apostles and Christ are seen as in icons of the death of Mary. Added to this, however, is a further detail. A single Jew, generally identified as one Jephonias, tries to overturn the bier. As he does so, the Archangel Michael, with his sword, strikes off his hands, which then remain attached to the bier. As the TRANSITUS goes on to report, however, Jephonias repents and his hands are restored. The Tarmanchats Evangeliary is in the Matenadaran Library at Erevan, Armenia.

Here we have a very elaborate thirteenth-century icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai. Because of its many naturalistic features, such as the highly emotional reactions of some participants, the work is attributed to a Western, a Crusader, artist, perhaps someone from Venice, who may have worked directly at the monastery itself.

Duccio's version is far more restrained. Several Jews do follow the Apostles' procession. One of them attempts to overturn the bier, but his hands remain stuck to it.

This is a fifteenth-century fresco from the Cathedral at Sandomierz, Poland.

A sixteenth-century (1547) icon by the Master Painter Alexei is from the Church of the Archangel Michael at Smilnik, Ukraine. As in a previous icon, we see the apostles riding on clouds with their accompanying angels. Jephonias' severed hands seem to be floating in the air before him.

This seventeenth-century icon from central Russia is in a private collection in Sewickley, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


Mary is Assumed into Heaven

Pictures of the Assumption as such are the product of the Western imagination. To introduce this set we have chosen a work by the artist known as the Master of the Legend of St. Lucy. He worked in the southern Netherlands between 1475 and 1505. Views of the City of Bruges are often included in his works, as perhaps in this one. Cool colors and a subdued atmosphere impart a tone of solemnity to his pieces.

Here the body of Mary is borne up by eight angels. Around this central group, one quite massive and imposing, are other angels: musicians, either playing on various instruments or singing. In a half circle at the top, heaven is revealed. The Blessed Trinity, enthroned, is surrounded by a further court of musician angels. All await Mary's arrival and are ready to proceed with her coronation. The painting is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

In the first part of our survey, we included Andrea Orcagna's relief sculpture of the angel announcing to Mary her approaching death. From the same east side of that Tabernacle at Orosanmichele, we have this magnificent sculpture of the Assumption. Mary sits enthroned in a mandorla. Four angels bear it up to heaven, as two others blow their trumpets. The male figure kneeling at the left and extending his right hand towards Mary is the late-comer Apostle, Thomas. Mary smiles indulgently, gestures towards him with her right hand as if to give him her cincture, in accord with the pious legend that Mary gave him that cincture to convince him of the miracle of her Assumption.

Lorenzo Ghiberti (ca. 1381-1455) is most famous as the sculptor who created two of the bronze doors for the Cathedral Baptistry in Florence. His workshop also provided that Cathedral's windows. He himself designed the one for the Assumption.

Two red-winged seraphim support the cloud that takes Mary to Heaven. Seated in an attitude of prayer, she is surrounded by the rays of the sun. Four angels bear her up. Three angels at the left sing to the accompaniment of three others on the right. At the top, Christ, flanked by two angels, prepares to bestow a crown upon his Mother.

This is a work by Bernardo Zenale (ca. 1456- 1526), an artist from northern Italy. A voluminous cloak floating about her, Mary, portrayed in a rather stiff posture, rises to heaven. Over twenty heads of small angels form a kind of mandorla about her. Four other angels, two on either side, look towards her in admiring prayer. A further two provide a lute serenade. The Apostles, assembled below, look up in awe. Thomas catches the cincture that falls into his waiting hand. The painting is now in the Church of San Carlo in Milan.

In 1488 Filippino Lippi (ca. 1457-1504) was summoned to Rome by Cardinal Oliviero Caraffa to decorate the Caraffa Chapel in the Dominican Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Here, Mary already crowned, stands on a dark cloud in deep recollection. A double row of angel heads forms a frame about her. Peering from the folds of her deep blue cloak are other angels, two of them swinging censers. On clouds scattered throughout the fresco, are nine angels portrayed in the very lively (some would say agitated) movement typical of Lippi's later style. Six of them are playing musical instruments, while the three below Mary's cloud carry cornacopias.

Iitian (ca. 1488-1576) early on became the most sought after painter in Venice. In 1516 the Franciscans at the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari commissioned him to paint this Assumption. Completed in 1518, the work was the largest altarpiece ever painted in Venice. This is perhaps the most dramatic of the Assumptions we have chosen. Every figure is in movement. Mary herself is intensely alive as she sweeps through the golden light of heaven and gazes in adoring wonder at God the Father, who hovers protectingly above her.

Another animated depicting of the Assumption. This one, dating from 1584-1585, is a late work by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588), the last great representative of the Italian Renaissance. Mary, rising from her tomb, fixes her gaze on heaven. Angels are all about. Two of them hold up the ample folds off her mantle. A small group of others at the right are providing music. Gathered around the empty marble tomb, the Apostles and other spectators look on in awe at the miracle they are witnessing. The painting, originally intended for the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Venice, has been at the Gallerie dell' Accademia in Venice since 1812.

This Assumption is one of eight canvases that El Greco (1541-1614) painted for Toledo's Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. Dated 1577, it is the earliest of the works created during his Spanish period. As contrasted with the treatment of some Italian masters, it is a work of silence. As one writer puts it, "Quiet is the Madonna's Ascension, quiet the witnessing of the miracle by the Apostles." The painting is now in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Within a half circle of large puffy clouds, Mary, surrounded by just six angels, rises to the golden light of heaven. Down below, eight of the Apostles watch as she disappears from sight, while four others examine the empty tomb, now strewn with flowers. As is evident here, the artist, Francesco Albani (1578-1660), was noted primarily for his landscapes. This work is now in the Galleria Doria Pamphili of Rome.

Typical of Venitian exuberance is this ceiling painting by Alessandro Varotari (1588-1649). Mary, seated on a cloud held by cherubs, rises in triumph towards the Blessed Trinity, barely visible in the bright light at the center. Angel musicians and others raising their arms in jubilee created a lively border. The old man opposite Mary represents the Apostle John, holding the palm of Mary's victory.
Varotari, also called Padovanino, created this work for the Scuola dei Carmini in Venice. Greatly influenced by Titian, he did much to revive sixteenth-century Venitian art.


Christ Crowns Mary

To begin our survey of coronations by Christ alone, we have chosen two works by Fra Angelico (1400-1455). The first, now in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence, is the earliest (1428) of the three best known depictions of this mystery that Angelico created.

To the left, enthroned against a brilliant background of golden rays, Christ and Mary are surrounded by angelic choirs. Ranged beneath them and spilling over to the sides is a vast crown: of nimbed saints in reverent attendance. The scene reflects the pomp and splendor of some royal court. Chosen in contrast, is Angelico's fresco (1443-1447) from the San Marco Convent in Florence. Here the content is greatly simplified. One might even call it etherialized. The earliest of these coronations that we wish to include is a polychroned ivory done in Paris sometime during the third quarter of the thirteenth century. Mary, hands joined in prayer, bends slightly towards her Son, who, himself crowned, has just placed a crown on her head.

In the Baroncelli Chapel at the Church of Santa Croce in Florence, is a five-part polyptych that Giotto (1267?-1336) painted with the assistance of Taddeo Gaddi (ca. 1300-1366) about the year 1330. The three central panels depict Mary's coronation. Christ and Mary are again surrounded by angel musicians and a host of reverent saints, though one in the third row at the right has turned his attention elsewhere. Red-winged seraphim are visible in the spandrels between the arches of the frames.

This coronation is the central panel of the polyptych by Paolo Veneziano (f. 1333-1358), the most prolific and influential painter of early fourteenth-century Venice. The work was done in the 1340 s for the Franciscan nunnery of Santa Chiara. Venetian interest in opulent fabrics is reflected in the garments worn by Christ and Mary and in the cloth backdrop behind them. Save for two hand organs, the angel orchestra is in the lunette at the top of the panel. Beneath Mary's feet is a crescent moon, her symbol, for she receives all her splendor from Christ, just as the moon gets its brightness from the sun. He stands on the sun, his symbol, for he fills all creation with his glory. The polyptych is now in the Accademia of Venice.

This is a work by Barnaba da Modena (1361-1383), who dominated later fourteenth-century painting in Genoa. The use of gold highlights, as seen here, is one of his trademarks. Christ, seated beneath a canopy, crowns Mary, who kneels before him. They are surrounded by an angel orchestra, whose array of instruments includes even a bagpipe. One angel is playing the melody pipe as another supplies the drone. The painting is part of an ensemble of four now in London's National Gallery.

This is one of the spectacular illuminations from the Très Riches Heures, created by the Limbourg Brothers for the Duc de Berry sometime around 1416. A beautiful blue sky forms the background as Mary kneels before her son, who blesses her. High above Mary, an angel holds the crown. A pale blue veil, bordered with gold tassels, covers his hands as its two ends of great length float gracefully down close to Mary's head. There are five angel musicians, and four others attendant on Mary. Thirteen more surround Christ, five of them holding three additional crowns above his head. At the right a line of saints winds along the frame of the picture, a river of golden halos. Some saints can be identified. At the lower left: Stephen, Francis of Assisi, and perhaps the martyr Bishop Denys, can be seen. St. Clare is in a nun's habit, and appears at the right.

After several centuries of obscurity, the Très Riches Heures, came to light again in 1856, when the book was purchased by the Duc d' Aumale. Like the Chevalier hours, considered earlier, also purchased by the Duke, the manuscript remains at the Musèe Condé in Chantilly.

Here Christ and Mary, framed by a dozen angel heads, are on a cloud floating above a Tuscan landscape. They are painted somewhat larger than the saints who surround them. Some of these latter are easily identified. In front at the left: Gregory the Great has the dove of the Holy spirit at his ear, and Catherine of Alexandria steadies her wheel. Behind them, Paul carries his sword, and John the Baptist points to the central figures. At the right: Appolonia holds a pincer with a tooth, and Jerome has his penitential stone at his breast. Directly above them, Peter displays his keys and John Evangelist, his arms crossed, clasps a book. The work by Bernardino Fungai (1460-1516), done in 1501, is in the Servite Church of San Clemente in Siena.

The most extraordinary work that Raphael (1482-1520) created in his early years is this coronation, commissioned by the Oddi family of Perugia for their chapel in the Church of San Francisco. As in many pictures of the Assumption proper, the apostles are gathered around Mary's empty tomb from which flowers now spring. Peter and Paul are on either side of Thomas, who holds the cincture that Mary has dropped down to him. Above, on the flat cloud, Christ crowns Mary as four angels provide music. A number of angel heads fill up the space a the top of the picture. The painting is now in the Vatican Picture Gallery.

images : 

Anonymous ivory group - Louvre, Paris

Fra Angelico - San Marco Convent, Florence


God the Father Crowns Mary.

Pictures showing God the Father crowning Mary are not very numerous. To introduce this theme, we have chosen a fresco painted by Filippo Lippi (1406-1469) in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Spoleto. It is part of a series on the life of Mary that he worked on with several assistants between 1467 and 1469. The coronation is high above in the apse of the cathedral behind the altar. God the Father and Mary are surrounded by a circular rainbow. Angels and saints are arranged on either side in symmetrical order.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) painted this coronation, commissioned by the Goldsmith's Guild of Florence, between 1488-1490. Below are four saints: An elderly John the Evangelist, St. Augustine, St. Jerome and the patron of the Goldsmith's Guild, St. Eligius. High above a semi-circle of cherubim and seraphim surround God the Father and Mary. Other angels dance about jubilantly and strew flowers. The painting is now in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence.

Michael Pacher (1435-1498) worked at the altar shrine of the St. Wolfgang Church at Wolfgangsee, Austria from 1471 to 1481. Here God the Father crowns Mary at the moment of the Incarnation, when she became the mother of his only-begotten Son.


Coronation by the Trinity

Representation of the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity crowning Mary become numerous during and after the fifteenth century. Our first example is a late Gothic wood sculpture from the Church of St. Zeno in Bad Reichenthal, Germany. The Father, the Son and Mary all wear heavily gilt robes. The Father, slightly older in appearance than the Son, holds an orb surmounted by a cross with three bars. That held by the Son has only one. Their crowns are identical. The one worn by Mary is similar to theirs but simpler.

This is one of two documented works by Enguerrand Quarton (1410-after 1466) and the most ambitious of those we know he created. His Father and Son are equal in appearance. With His wings, the dove of the Holy Spirit touches the lips of each to show that is is spirited by both. All three Persons are numbed. Hands crossed on her breast, Mary stands enveloped in a voluminous blue cloak that spreads out at her feet. Immediately behind this central group is a phalanx of seraphim. Rank on rank of those in heaven are along the sides. Beneath them, with hands raised in prayer, are the souls in purgatory. The painting is now in the Hospice at Villeneuve-les-Avignon.

Dirck Bouts (1415-1475) places the coronation within an unpretentious chapel. Father and son are seated on a simple canopied throne. With his triple crown, orb and a large morse for his crimson cloak, the Father, heavily bearded, is the more imposing figure. The Son, clad in the poverty of his human nature, appears lower in stature. Within a bright mandorla, the Holy Spirit shines between them as they hold a crown above Mary's head. Over on the sides, six angels form a small choir.

This is the third illustration we have used from the Chevalier Hours by Jean Fouquet. A palatial throne room is the setting here. The three Persons of the Trinity are depicted as three men in the prime of life. They are identical in mien and garb, a simple but resplendent white tunic. The Father sits in the center of a highly ornate triple throne and to his side the Holy Spirit. It is the Son alone who descends to crown Mary. On either side of the throne, in long lines placed one above the other, are members from three of the nine choirs of angels.

This second coronation by Michael Pacher involves the entire Trinity. The Father and the son sit on facing thrones. That of the Father, who appears slightly older, is raised a little above that of the son. The Father, his eyes opened, places a simple coronet on Mary's head and raises his hand in blessing. The Son, his eyes lowered, holds in his hand a scepter. The heavily gilt figures, about half life-size, are part of an altarpiece, dated 1471-1475, in the Vintler Chapel, a cemetery church at Gries, near Bolzano, Italy.

This unusual piece, done in 1457, possibly in France, combines both painting and relief carving in wood. Once again all Three Persons of the Trinity are depicted in human form. The Father, crowned and heavily bearded, is enthroned in the center. At the left, is the Son, wearing a gray tunic and showing a double-pointed beard. The Holy Spirit, dressed in white, sits at the right. All three hold up a crown above Mary's head. Angels occupy the eight compartments of the narrow wooden band that surrounds this central group. At the top of the larger outer circle, we find some kings and prophets of the Old Testament. They are followed by the Apostles on the left and by bishops on the right. Next come the martyrs, men on the left, women on the right. Below there are the confessors and virgins. The symbols for the Evangelists fill in the corners: those for Matthew and John at the top and the ones for Mark and Luke on the bottom.

This is the last of several versions of Mary's coronation that El Greco (1541-1614) painted. It is one of four paintings still in place that he created for the chapel in the Hospital of Nuestra Senora de Caridad at Illescas. Together they are among the most significant works of his later years. The coronation takes place high in the heavens. The Son, robed in red and pale green, sits at the left. The Father, as the Ancient of Days, with a long gray beard and in an immense white garment sits at the right. Mary, hands joined in prayer, looks up at the Holy Spirit, who rests atop the crown held high by both Father and Son. A parabola of angels and angel heads frames Mary's blue robe. Numerous other angels are scattered about, adding further life to the composition.

This is one of a series of paintings on the life of Mary by Jan Baegert (1465-1527), also known as the Master of Cappenberg. Typical of this artist's work, the composition is very symmetrical. Mary is in the center and all else is grouped around her. The Father and Son are identical in garb, but the Father's face is fuller and his beard heavier than that of the Son. Two angel musicians stand behind the throne, and two others hold up a canopy and its back cloth. The panel is in London's National Gallery.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) created several versions of Mary's coronation. This one, dated 1625, was done for a Franciscan Church in Antwerp and is now in the Royal Museums for the Fine Arts in Brussels. Here too the coronation takes place among the clouds of heaven. As a sign of his lordship over creation, the Father does not hold an orb. He stands instead on an immense globe., and in his left hand holds a staff-like scepter pressed against his thigh. The son, who became flesh, is enveloped in a red cloak, undulating as in a strong wind. The crown they hold above Mary is a very simply circlet. She, with eyes cast down and hands on her breast, stands, like the woman of the Apocalypse, on a crescent moon. The work appears to have been done chiefly by the assistants in Rubens' studio.

The coronation by Rubens is reflected in this one by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). Velazquez very probably knew of it through an engraving. If the general arrangement of both works is the same, there are differences to be noted. Here the Father, the Son and Mary do not stand among the clouds. They are seated. The Father grasps an orb and the Son holds a scepter. There is no moon at Mary's feet, and the lower half of the painting is full of light. Now at the Prado in Madrid, the work, done in 1641 or 1642, is the last of Velazquez's pictures dealing with a religious subject.

We end this set on the coronation of Mary with another of the Strasbourg tapestries dating from the seventeenth century (1640-1657). We have once more a scene of great triumph set in the clouds. The Father, enveloped in an immense golden cloak, holds a large blue orb. The Son, His fleshly human nature in evidence as in the work of Rubens, embraces a tall wooden cross. Wrapped in a blue mantle, Mary kneels in profile, facing the Father. Over at the sides near the top are musician angels, while the angels flying below carry sprays of bright flowers. In the landscape at the bottom we see several Marian symbols. Among them are the sealed fountain and the enclosed garden.


Angels Crown Mary

The Coronation of Mary completes, so to say, the mystery of her Assumption. Artists have depicted this event in four different ways. Many show Mary crowned by Christ alone, a few by one or two angels, some by the Father alone, and others by all Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. While artists of the Christian East introduced the subject of Mary's Falling Asleep and those of Italy that of her Assumption, it was the artists of France who began picturing her Coronation. In works of the late twelfth century and of the early thirteenth, we see that they preferred to show Mary as crowned by angels. This preference is evident even in works of the late fifteenth century as in a Book of Hours dated between 1460 and 1470. Seated on a canopied throne, God the Father blesses Mary, who kneels before him. Sweeping down from a starlet sky, an angel places a rather heavy crown on Mary's head. This Book of Hours, made for use in the diocese of Troyes, is now in an undisclosed collection.

Another Book of Hours, one from Northern France dated around 1450, has a similar illumination. Here the Father and Mary are joined by four angels. Two swing censers, one looks on as a fourth prepares to crown Mary. The manuscript is in the Staatsbibliothek of Berlin.

Our earliest example of a coronation by an angel from the first decade of the thirteenth century (1205-1210). This is from the portal on the north facade of the Cathedral at Chartres. Here Christ and Mary sit on thrones side by side, for Mary rules with Christ, sharing his power. As an angel crowns Mary, another, flying above Christ, swings a censer. The group is flanked by two other angels who kneel.

The left entrance on the west facade of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is known as the Virgin's Portal. Its art commemorates events at the end of Mary's life. The top tier of the tympanum depicts her Coronation. Here Christ and Mary share the same throne. As an angel crowns her, Christ blesses his mother and presents her with a sceptre, symbol of her royal power. The Virgin's Portal probably dates from the years 1210-1220.

A similar coronation is found on Notre Dame's northern facade, above the door called the Red Portal. The smallest of Notre Dame's entrances, it was donated by King St. Louis IX and his wife, Marguerite of Provence. They kneel on either of Christ and Mary. Louis on the left and Marguerite on the right. The angel, full-length in flight, holds the crown above Mary's head. The Red Portal dates from the years 1265-1267.


The Woman of the Apocalypse in Context

To this series of pictures centered on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, it is fitting that we append another set, that of art work depicting her definitive victory over hell as the Woman of the Apocalypse. We find her at the beginning of Chapter 12 in this last book of the Bible, "Now a great sign appeared in heaven; a woman, robed with the sun, standing on the moon, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and in labor, crying aloud in the pangs of childbirth. Then a second sign appeared in the sky, there was a huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns." The rest of this chapter describes the war between the forces of evil (the dragon and his cohorts) and those of God (Michael and his angels) and of course the woman. She was foretold at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis 3:15-16 as the one who, together with her Son, would crush the head of the serpent. The woman represents the Church as well as the Blessed Virgin. Both bring forth the children of God, who are to conquer evil and bring about the eventual complete triumph of God's kingdom.

Art inspired by Apocalypse 12 has taken three forms. The earliest is of a narrative character, closely following the text of the book. Here are illustrations from manuscripts of the Apocalypse and commentaries thereon that date from as early as the ninth century. In them we see the woman pursued by the dragon, who tries to sweep her away in the torrent flowing from his mouth. Then the woman, given wings, flees into the wilderness, and her child is snatched up to heaven. Michael and the heavenly host hurl the dragon down to the earth.

Later artists depict the woman alone, clothed with the sun (encircled by its rays) and crowned with starts. A further development shows the woman surrounded by the rays of the sun and in her arms carrying the Son she bore.

To introduce the narrative pictures from the Apocalypse, we have chosen an illumination from the first illustrated Apocalypse produced in the Netherlands, a Flemish manuscript dating to about the year 1400. There are twenty-three full-page illustrations; one for each of the book's twenty-two chapters and another at the beginning presenting scenes from the life of St. John. Four distinct episodes are included in the illumination for Chapter 12. Reading from the right top to bottom, we see the woman in childbed presenting her Child to an angel, who will take it to the one enthroned in heaven. She is surrounded by rays as of the sun and at her feet are both the moon and the sun together. Just below this, an angel fits a wing to her shoulder. At the bottom left, she appears once more in a grove of trees. The dragon pursues her there, vomiting the water which the earth opens up to swallow, thus aiding the woman. At the upper left, Michael wields his sword against the dragon. The manuscript is one of the treasures of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

The earliest narrative picture selected is from a commentary on the Apocalypse assembled by the monk Beatus of Liebeanu (d.798). Issued in three recensions (774, 784, 786), the work is really an anthology of texts produced by many earlier writers. The thirty manuscripts that survive are more important for their illustrations, tracing the development of Spanish art from the ninth century through the thirteenth. These greatly influenced Romanesque sculpture in certain locales. Our manuscript, an example of the first recension, was prepared in 1047 for King Ferdinand and his wife, Sancha. It is presently in the Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid.

Here as in our first example and as we shall see in some other, artists packed into a single space the several episodes depicted in Apocalypse 12. Added to this illustration is the fiery lake of burning sulphur prepared for the evildoers (Apocalypse 19:20).

This illustration is taken from a copy of the third redaction of Beatus' commentary. The manuscript, done at Sahagun, Spain in 1086, was written out by the scribe Petrus and its illustrations created by a certain Martinus. The volume is in the Cathedral library at Burgo de Osma.

This is a seventeenth century copy of an illustration from the Hortus Deliciarum (The Garden of Delights) compiled by the abbess Herrad of Landsberg (1130-1195). This compendium of twelfth century thought was intended as a source of spiritual nourishment for her nuns in the abbey at Hohenberg. As was true of the commentary by Beatus, Herrad's anthology was more significant for its illuminations, over 340 of them. The manuscript was totally destroyed during the bombardment of Strasbourg during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

What is most striking here, of course, is the imposing figure of the Woman, who in this instance represents the Church of all ages. "To her was given a pair of the great eagle's wings to fly away from the serpent into the desert, to the place where she was to be looked after." (Apocalypse 12:14). At the bottom left a crowned lion is persecuting God's faithful with a sword on which are the letters ON, signifying the Emperor Nero.

A round the year 1120, a canon of St. Omer named Lambert compiled a Liber Floridus, which included an illustrated Apocalypse. A copy of this letter is now at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, Germany.

Here John contemplates several scenes: the child taken to heaven; the Ark of the Covenant visible between the arches of the heavenly temple (Apocalypse 1:19), the Woman holding the child, seated like the statues depicting the Virgin in Majesty; the dragon who with his tail sweeps away a third of the stars of heaven.

Two scenes from an Apocalypse of the thirteenth century. At the top, the woman gives her newborn child to a waiting angel who carries it to heaven. Below, the woman safely in the wilderness though the dragon is in pursuit.

This page is from an Apocalypse made in 1242-1250 for Eleanor of Provence, wife of England's King Henry III (1207-1272). Considered by some to be the finest of all illustrated Apocalypses, the book belongs to Trinity College, Cambridge, England.

One of the most remarkable suites if illustrations based on the Apocalypse is the series of tapestries that were created between 1375 and 1382 for Louis I, Duke of Anjou. Known as the Angers Apocalypse, the tapestries were woven in Paris by Nicolas Bataille, working from designs prepared by Hennequin de Bruges, court painter to Charles V, an older brother of Louis. Hennequin modeled his work on an illuminated Apocalypse that belonged to Charles. Originally each of the seven hangings was eighty feet long and twenty feet high together they comprise some 105 scenes, of which only some seventy-seven remain. These fragments, rescued by chance from almost certain destruction in the 1850's, are now displayed in the castle at Angers.

We have selected two scenes from this ensemble. The first picture Apocalypse 12:13-14, "As soon as the dragon found himself hurled down to the earth, he sprang in pursuit of the Woman. . .But she was given a pair of the great eagle's wings to fly away from the serpent."

The second continues the story as found in verses fifteen and sixteen; "So the serpent vomited water from his mouth, like a river, after the woman, to sweep her away in the current, but the earth came to her rescue; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river spewed from the dragon's mouth." In both scenes, the author of the Book, St. John, is pictured over at the side watching the proceedings.

From late in the following century, we have another suite of illustrations dealing with the Apocalypse. This is the series of woodcuts that Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) issued in 1498, when he was only twenty-seven years old. The work, which made him instantly famous, is recognized as one of the supreme achievements of German art. As one writer expressed it, after 1500 Dürer had a monopoly on the Apocalypse.
In this cut, Dürer brings together the various episodes of Chapter 12 as we have seen in the productions of so many artists before him.

Our final example of what we have termed pictures of a narrative character is a tapestry from the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo. This is a work by Flemish artists, designed by Luis van Shoor and executed by the weaver Joannes Reghelbrugghe in 1698.

The woman, with her attributes of sun, moon and stars, rises to heaven, surrounded by angel heads, while Michael with energy thrusts his long spear into one of the dragon's long sinewy necks.


The Apocalyptic Woman Alone

To introduce the theme of the Apocalyptic Woman seen alone we have chosen an image from an Apocalypse known as the Illustrated Apocalypse of the Dukes of Savoy. Here the woman, very pregnant and ready to be delivered, is pictured as sitting, rather than standing. Beneath her is a crescent moon. She is surrounded by the large burning rays of a very brilliant sun. In the margin at the right, stands John, author of the book, shielding his eyes against the splendor and brightness of the vision before him.

The Savoy Apocalypse was begun (1428-1434) by Jean Bapteur, who did the narrative pictures and Peronet Lamy, who decorated the borders. Some fifty years later (1485-1490), the work was completed by Jean Colombe at the behest of Duke Charles I. The manuscript was handed on by inheritance from one royal or noble house to another until in 1559 it became the property of Philip II of Spain, who placed it in the Escorial, where it remains.

In earlier image goes back to about the year 1300. This is an illumination from a manuscript known as the Rothschild Canticles, a compilation of prayers made in the Rhineland for the use of some nun. With hands raised, the woman stands against a checkered background of dark blue and red squares. The crescent moon at her feet shelters a human face. The sun, which covers the upper part of her body, has another human face at its center. The inner disk is surrounded by a wavy aureole of pale blue undulating curves. Beyond this protrude heavy jagged rays.

We have selected two images from an office of the blessed Virgin printed by the famous Plantin Press of Antwerp in 1622. In these the sun is a mandorla around the Woman. One depicts her in an attitude of prayer. The other shows her with a crown and sceptre. Both are surrounded by conventional symbols associated with the Blessed Virgin.

Finally, we have adaptations by two contemporary artists, Steven Erspamer, Marianist and Michael O'Neill Mc Grath, an Oblate of Saint Francis de Sales. In one version, Erspamer places the sun and moon as decorations on the woman's garment. In the other he shows her treading upon the serpent entwined around the crescent at her feet.

In O'Neill McGrath's picture, the bright, fiery rays of an immense sun almost overwhelm the figure of the woman, whom we see floating above the clouds. For an original touch, the artist has placed at the center of the composition the dove of the Holy Spirit for it is she who fills and illumines the soul of the woman with his own great light.


The Strahlenden Madonnen

Madonnas Surrounded by Rays

In the Strahlenden radiant Madonnen, we have a third group of art works inspired by Chapter 12 of the Apocalypse. Another (radiant) adaptation of the Woman clothed with the sun, these are statues of the Madonna and Child surrounded by sunbursts, sometimes of great brilliance. They became quite numerous in the Rhineland and elsewhere in Germany, beginning with the end of the fifteenth century. Often they are found at the top of highly elaborate chandeliers raised above the main altar of a church.

Our first example is from the Cathedral of Xanten, a town in the Rhine Valley. We present two views: first, the entire sanctuary where this Madonna graces a large chandelier, and then a close-up of the statue itself, which goes back to the year 1501.

A later Gothic work from Findelberg, near Saal in the far north of Germany, some distance east and north of the better known city of Rostock.

Another work from northern Germany, an altarpiece by Christian Swarte, dated 1495, in the Marienkirche of Lübeck, thirty-five miles northeast of Hamburg.

Strasbourg's Hans Baldung Grien (1484/5-1545), whose work shows the influence of Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, and some others, painted this picture in 1511.

Standing on a crescent moon, the Woman of the Apocalypse floats within a frame of puffy clouds against a background of intense light. John records the vision, as his symbol, the eagle, looks on and grasps the edge of a closed book. The painting is now in the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

This Madonna was carved by Hans Leinberger, the most important sculptor in Bavaria between the years 1510 and 1530. The statue, dating from around 1515-1520, is in the Church of St. Martin at Landshut, center of Leinberger's activity. Originally, the image was surrounded by a carved rosary like the one encircling the Annunciation by Veit Stoss in the Church of St. Lawrence in Nürnberg.

Some miles north and west of Cologne and just south of Mönchengladbach is the town of Erkelenz. There in the Church of St. Lambert, we find another Madonna, as at Xanten, atop a highly ornamented chandelier. The work, attributed to one Johann Erwein of Cologne, dates to the year 1517.

A Madonna, dated around 1530 from a church in Altenberg, a town south of Dresden, near the Czech border.

In some of the Strahlenden Madonnen we have seen, the Virgin Mary is depicted with either a crown or a scepter. Our final four, from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, show forth her queenship more clearly. In these she has both a crown and a scepter. This first version, with a sunburst whose long rays almost overwhelm the statue itself, is of the seventeenth century. It comes from the Church of St. John in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a town in Bavaria, not too far west of Nurnberg.

From the Church of St. Kilian at Bad Heilbrunn, we have this statue of 1726. Set against a sunburst of silver rays, the ensemble is surrounded by a mandorla of small angel heads cast in silver. Heilbrunn is situated in the Rhineland, a short distance south of Heidelberg.

At Oelinghausen, near Dortmund in western Germany, is a shrine honoring the Virgin Mary as queen of the area known as the Sauerland. The pilgrimage church there houses this Strahlende Madonna dating from around 1730. The statue is surrounded by a complex arrangement of sun rays. Connected to these latter are twelve small angels, attached back to back, all poised as dancers. Peering from the blue cloud at Mary's feet are three other angel heads. Hovering over all is the dove of the Holy Spirit.

This very regal Madonna, clad in heavily gilt garments, dates from around 1750. In her right hand, she holds out a long ornate sceptre. Her left foot stands on a crescent moon, while her right crushes the head of the serpent. In a playful mood, her son kicks up with his left foot, and with his right hand reaches towards his Mother's face. The image, originally from Teistungenburg, is now housed in the Städtisches Museum of Göttingen.


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