Assumption of the Virgin

7:00 AM

El Greco, Assumption of the Virgin, 1577

This colossal and stupefying panel by "the Greek" immediately fascinated me when I saw it in the Art Institute of Chicago. Measuring more than 13 feet tall and almost seven feet wide, this vignette of the Virgin's ascent into heaven demands the attention of anyone passing by.

While one may guess El Greco painted this after years of masterpieces under his fancy, black robe-belt because of the exceptional quality of the Assumption of the Virgin, this was his first big-time commission in Spain. Along with three other paintings of his, and his own burial place, this painting was originally located in the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, Spain. Today it lies across from the equally (yet entirely different in its approach) religious and captivating Crucifixion by Francisco de Zurbarán painted a half century later.

The juxtaposition in styles of Spanish painting during the Renaissance: a beautiful, colorful, and fantastical mannerist painting against the realistic, focused, and bare-bones execution of Zurbarán's Crucifixion entranced all museum-goers circulating through this room. On one end, we have a clear glorification of Christianity and the wonders associated with the belief. On the other end, the clear, undistracted, and undeniably apparent pain and violence inflicted upon God's son, Jesus, conveying to any viewer the sacrifice he endured for their sins.

Subversive to the conventional and uninformed view of Renaissance art being dull, comically incorrect in perspective, and ugly, this painting will surely convert all non-believers in paintings that are not from recent history. On that note, there is a beauty in how this was painted for the purpose of illustrating the grandeur of God, but today we have the liberty to attach our own individual post-modern interpretation and meaning to these masterpieces in Christian art painted four-hundred years ago.  We may see this painting with knowledge of other art that was created around the globe well before, well after, or perhaps in the same place fifty years later, as we've done. I find the non-period eye a fascinating tool that should be capitalized more upon in the academic community. Of course it is crucial to appreciate a piece of art for what it's worth in the context, conditions, and period it was created in, we should also recognize our fortunate position to make the comparisons that we do.

In the painting itself, I noticed the clear division between the mystified Apostles and the surprise-party-like celebration of the angels in heaven. When seeing this in person, I was enthralled with the use of scale and how it influenced the viewing experience of the painting. The figures in the lower half appear close to human size, letting the voyeur become a part of this religious event. Then, the accepting and embracing motion of the Virgin assenting into heaven leads the eyes up well into the sky where heaven is — a pseudo-immersive experience that demonstrates El Greco's excellence in what he did.

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