Titian launches Venetian career with a masterpiece

Popularly known as Assunta, the main altarpiece of Venice’s Franciscan church, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari – The Assumption of the Virgin is Titian’s undisputed masterpiece. It is essentially proto-Mannerist, anticipating a whole new style of painting, of which Titian would become a major representative. Completed in 1518, it was the artist’s first major commission in the city where his artistry would reign supreme for decades until his death in the plague epidemic of 1576. Towering to more than 22 feet, the altarpiece is painted in oil on 22 horizontal poplar planks. At this size, Assunta is also the largest altarpiece in Venice and one of the largest in Italy.

Titian divided the enormous picture into three sections while maintaining a perfect symmetry. The lowest register represents the terrestrial plane where the 11 Apostles (with the exception of Judas) witness the assumption; in the middle section, Mary soars upwards, surrounded by a swarm of cherubim, towards the top section representing Heaven, where God awaits her. The star of the painting is of course the Virgin who is shown as being elevated upwards in a whirl of drapery on rising clouds. Illustrating an important event in Roman Catholicism – the moment when Mary is assumed into Heaven – this is the most famous Assumption in Renaissance art.

Despite Mary’s central role in the picture Titian retains the standard theological hierarchy where the geometry of the painting, deployed to this purpose, leads the viewer to look from the bottom, occupied by the Apostles, up – towards God. The agitated figures of the Apostles mark a break with the usual meditative stillness of saints in Venetian painting in the tradition of Giovanni Bellini and others. This is no sacra conversazione, Assunta has a dynamic and revolutionary composition. Titian’s figures are bursting with energy, life and movement. This painting has an enormous emotional power. Through all this, it alludes to the incoming school of Mannerism.

As for the painting’s subject, the Assumption of Mary is a Catholic doctrine that remained optional in the early 16th century when Assunta was painted and it was not declared an article of faith until 1950 when Pope Pius XII did so officially. The Franciscans, however, were always keen promoters of this and other aspects of Marian theology, in particular the related doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The doctrine held that the body of the Virgin Mary was “assumed” into heaven at the end of her earthly life. Hence Assunta’s primacy on the main altar of a minor basilica that is the Frari.

For a picture of its size, Assunta has an impressive travel history, too. In 1818, as part of the Napoleonic reforms, it was removed from the Frari and transferred to the Accademia where it remained for a century before being returned to the church in 1919. Just before its return to the Frari, during the First World War, the painting was transported to Cremona and later Pisa for safekeeping. The painting was transferred again during the Second World War for the same reason. First it was moved to Strà and then to Ca’ Rezzonico. In 1945, it was finally restored to its original place where it has remained since.