Great works: The Assumption (1516-18) by Titian

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice

Titian's masterpiece still hangs where it has hung for almost 500 years, on the high altar of one of the greatest and most muscular religious establishments in Venice, the Franciscan church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. It is not an especially well-lit church, and to come upon the painting as we do, from a considerable distance away yet within our sightline, is a jolt, a building emotional shock. The sheer energy of the composition amazes and delights.

Religious paintings before this one were often more static and demure, as if displaying a kind of cowed, reverential awe in the face of the sacredness of the subject. Titian seems to let rip as never before – and he was criticised by many for doing so, as Vasari tells us in some detail in his biography. The subject could scarcely be more important to Catholic Christendom – it is the point at which Mary ascends into heaven, to be embraced by God the Father. We see him there, peering down at her, expectant.

There are three levels of boisterous activity here, and they are all interlinked. It is as if she is being sucked up, embraced by a kind of vortex of energy. Our eye climbs as we survey the upwardly whirling scene, from the base upward – the painting looks and feels immensely tall. As it should, of course, because its height represents that great tract of imaginative space between earth and heaven, with the groundedness of those outreaching apostles at its foot and God the Father at its apex. The base is a kind of hubbub of humanity, and unrefined humanity too. Vasari reminds us that Titian used local fishermen from Chioggia as models for the Apostles. But weren't some of those Apostles themselves fishermen? Titian might have responded.

That red-robed Apostle with his back to us seems to wish almost to snatch her back, as he implores her not to leave them bereft quite so soon. The emotional impact of the painting is enhanced by its extraordinary colours – those intensely rich reds which are repeated at all three levels – and that almost molten skyscape.

About the artist: Tiziano Vecelli (c1490-1576)

Tiziano Vecelli, one of four children, was born around 1490 and was the son of the superintendent of the castle of Pieve in the Dolomites. At the age of 12 he was sent to Venice to live with an uncle and train as a painter. Having prospered mightily, he died at the great age of 85 (or so) in the autumn of 1576, during the greatest plague to strike the city in the 16th century.

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