Angels We Have Heard on High: Assumption of the Virgin Mary

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Angels We Have Heard on High
The Imagery of Angels in Christian Art
Curated by Camille O'Leary

Peter Paul Rubens, Assumption of the Virgin Mary, 1626

Dang, that's a lot of babies.

The Virgin Mary, according to the Roman Catholic Church and a number of other factions, did not die, but simply ascended directly to heaven at the end of her life. The image stems not from the Bible, but from a later tradition that took shape during the Middle Ages and grew in popularity in the sixteenth century. Peter Paul Rubens paints her surrounded by a host of angels, being borne up to heaven as the Twelve Apostles below react with various expressions of shock and awe. Her clothing billows grandly about her, and the faintest of haloes may be seen, which draws attention to her face. Holy rays of light issuing from the top right corner emphasize the diagonal lines of Mary's ascent, and the angels swirl around her in a flowing circular movement emphasized by the curve of the altarpiece itself.

Rubens painted several variations on this subject over his lifetime. This particular version was created for the Antwerp Cathedral of Our Lady, which held a contest to design an Assumption altarpiece. Although some art historians disagree, the general consensus is that Rubens submitted two rougher models, with slight differences, and the final design (finished fifteen years after the competition was announced) reflects elements of both. 

The swarm of pudgy babies, or putti, supporting Mary, their chubby limbs detailed in fine Rubens style, melt in and out of wisps of cloud. Some sport bird or insect wings, and others have none at all. Several seem to be smiling and even laughing as they bear her up. The variety in their posing and expression keeps the space interesting without it becoming too crowded. The larger four angels, two of whom offer a crown of flowers to Mary, focus their complete attention on Mary to direct the viewer's eye to the center of their circle. At more than fifteen feet in height, the towering masterpiece commands attention and respect.

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