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El Greco, Assumption of the Virgin, 1577-79

22 Aug

El Greco’s Assumption of the Virgin tells the story of the Assumption and was his first major commission after his move to Toledo. Painted for the high altar of the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, the painting depicts the Virgin Mary ascending to heaven atop a crescent moon while a group of Apostles look on from below. The Virgin Mary is depicted in an interesting position in that she is seen from below while the Apostles are placed at the viewer’s eye level. The painting is divided into two spheres with the Apostles occupying the earthly sphere and the angels occupying the heavenly sphere. The Apostles stand around a heavy, stone tomb as they look on with amazement as Mary moves into the heavenly sphere. The angels form a semicircle around the Virgin Mary and reach out in celebration as she ascends. The clothing worn by the Virgin Mary, the angels, and the Apostles is rich, undulating, and bold but the Virgin Mary’s blue and red robes make her stand out from the others. Characteristic of El Greco, the bodies twist and gesture dramatically. These characteristics of form such as color and line convey the importance of the story of the Assumption as well as help to awaken a spiritual fervor in the viewer.

The focus of this painting is the Virgin Mary as it is the story of her being received into heaven. She is visually foregrounded in a number of ways. The viewer looks at the Virgin Mary from below which emphasizes her ascension to heaven. Her extended arms and dynamic body position command a presence against a backdrop of swirling clouds and moving angels. A striking patch of yellow surrounding the Virgin Mary’s head marks her as divine compared to the mass of angels behind her. The bright and bold blue cloth contrasts with the red of her dress making the Virgin Mary stand out against the gold of the sky and white of the clouds. Despite the seemingly heavy quality to the clothing the Virgin Mary wears, her ascension to heaven seems effortless and ethereal, adding to the spiritual quality of the painting. The colors and the Virgin’s dynamic body position emphasize the importance and the drama of the Assumption. To Christians viewing the painting, the Assumption is an important topic because it signals to them that they, like the Virgin Mary, can be received into heaven. El Greco’s emphasis on the Virgin Mary and her ascension is a signal to the importance of religion in everyone’s lives in Toledo.

The diagonal line created by the dynamic bodies gives the painting that upward mobility that is essential to a painting depicted the Assumption. The importance of the Virgin Mary’s movement upward is emphasized by the line within the twisting bodies and pointed hands focused on her. Because the line is dynamic and not static, the painting awakens a religious spirit and force within the viewer causing them to connect with their faith on a deeper level. Another striking aspect of Assumption of the Virgin is the bold use of color and the use of black. While the painting is very colorful, black is still prevalent and is an important marker in the distinction between the earthly sphere and heavenly sphere. Black is used within the bodies to give them more weight and distinction. The bold colors of the clothing play off each other in order to draw the viewers’ eye upward and toward the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary’s clothing is also a marker of her importance within the scene as it allows her to stand apart from the countless bodies behind her. Line and color play an important part in telling the story of the Assumption and help to awaken a spiritual fervor within its viewers.

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