Assumption of the Virgin by Titian
Analysis of Tiziano Vecellio's Venetian Renaissance Altarpiece

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Assumption of the Virgin by Titian
Assumption of the Virgin
By Titian. A masterpiece
of the Italian Renaissance
in Venice, it is regarded
by critics as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18)


Interpretation of Assumption of the Virgin
Other Famous Paintings by Titian


Artist: Titian (1488-1576)
Medium: Oil painting on wood panel
Genre: Venetian altarpieces (16th Century)
Movement: Venetian Renaissance
Location: S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice

For the meaning of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Art Analysis
For more examples of
Venetian Painting by
artists like Tiziano Vecellio,
see our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

For more about Titian's art:
Titian and Venetian Painting.

Interpretation of Assumption of the Virgin by Titian

This altarpiece by Titian, one of the most inspirational works of Christian art, is surely among the greatest Renaissance paintings of the Venetian School. The largest work of its type in Venice (over 22 feet tall), it was Titian's first major commissioned work in the city and took him two years to paint. It hangs over the high altar in the Franciscan Basilica of S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, where its colour and colossal size ensures that it can be seen from the other end of the church. When it was unveiled in May 1518, it instantly established the young artist as the pre-eminent figure of High Renaissance art in Venice. And it wasn't just its huge size, it was a revolutionary composition. Because while earlier religious paintings inside churches had been relatively static, with statue-like saints and regal Madonnas, Titian's figures are bursting with energy and life, thus giving the work enormous emotional power and drama. The brilliant Venetian neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822) described this work as the most beautiful painting in the world. In 1818, it was removed from the altar and transferred to the Venice Academy of Fine Art, where it remained for a century before being returned to the Frari in 1919.




While a lesser painter might have shrunk from the massive expanse of panel before them, Titian simply divided this exquisite work of Biblical art into three sections. The lowest register represents the terrestrial plane where the disciples witness the assumption; in the middle section, the Virgin Mary soars upward, surrounded by a swarm of angelic cherubim, towards the top section representing Heaven, where God awaits her. The star of the painting is of course the Madonna, who is shown as being elevated upwards in a whirl of drapery on solid-looking clouds. Illustrating an important event in Roman Catholicism - the moment when Mary is assumed into Heaven - it is the most famous Assumption in Renaissance art, if not all Western art. One gets the feeling that she is not just a symbol of salvation but perhaps a symbol of Venice, too.

Above the Virgin, the heavenly zone is suffused with golden light (allegedly in a homage to the tradition of Venetian mosaic art), while below her set in shadowy earth the apostles (Saint Peter, Saint Thomas and Saint Andrew) are stunned by the miraculous happening but also distraught at losing the mother of Christ their saviour. They implore her to stay, but her gaze is already directed towards Heaven. There, she is awaited by God, his face painted in Impressionistic style, who looks with a strict yet sad face on his children below.

Its effect on High Renaissance painting was immediate. When first unveiled, Titian's cinquecento contemporaries were immediately struck by the upward-striving dynamics, the dramatic expressiveness of the scene and the agitation of the figures. It is perhaps no coincidence that, within 12 months, the mid-air quality and upward motion of the painting was emulated by Raphael (1483-1520) in the Transfiguration (c.1518-20, Pinacoteca Apostolica, Rome). See also: Legacy of Venetian Painting on European art


Nowadays, Titian is most famous for his rich, sensual use of colour and his radical technique of painting. Brushloads of colour pigments appear to float across the painting. His virtuoso handling of colour is evident in the Assumption: see how the two disciples in red form a pyramid with the Madonna, drawing our eyes up to the red robe of God. Not long after finishing the Assumption, Titian painted a second large altarpiece in the Frari, known as The Madonna of the Pesaro Family (1519-26), which is an even better showcase of his exquisite rendering of the luxurious silks and velvets for which Venice was famous. And by moving the image of the Virgin and Child off-centre it again demonstrated the young artist's restless innovation. Titian went on to complete several other influential altar paintings, such as the Death of St Peter Martyr (1526–30, Church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, now lost), which was considered by Giorgio Vasari to be his greatest work.


Titian's Assumption of the Virgin takes added inspiration from several sources outside Venice. Compositionally, it shares certain iconographical features with the Sistine Madonna (1513-14) and other works of Raphael, while the vigorous figures of the disciples echo those in Michelangelo's Genesis fresco in the Sistine Chapel. In any event, the painting seems to indicate a clear desire on Titian's part to escape the confines of Venetian painting in order to establish his own universal style of religious art: a style which incorporates power and drama as well as the traditional Venetian appreciation of decorative art, and clearly alludes to the coming school of Mannerism.



The Golden Age of the Renaissance in Venice

Titian's long career coincided largely with Venice's Golden Age which came to an abrupt if not Biblical end in 1575, with a virulent plague, which decimated the city's population. Titian died from it the following year and was buried in the same church that houses his Assumption of the Virgin.

Other Famous Paintings by Titian

Portrait of a Man (1512) National Gallery, London.
Madonna of the Pesaro Family (1519-26) S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.
Bacchus and Ariadne (1522) National Gallery, London.
Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-5) Prado, Madrid.
Man With a Glove (1525) Louvre Museum, Paris.
Death of St Peter Martyr (1526–30) Church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo.
Venus of Urbino (1538) Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
The Man with the Blue-Green Eyes (1540-5) Pitti Palace, Florence.
Pope Paul III with his Grandsons (1546) Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte.
Portrait of Emperor Charles V Seated (1548) Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
Venus and Adonis (1553) Prado Museum, Madrid.
The Rape of Europa (1559-62) Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, Boston.

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