Assumption of the Virgin

The Assumption of the Virgin
Massimo Stanzione, Italian, circa 1630-1635
(oil on canvas)
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

Let’s continue our discussion and once again ask the question, “What is art?”

Throughout history, individuals have aligned themselves with important religious, mythological and historical figures in works of art to enhance their own power and status. We saw examples of this in our last entry. Similarly, religious, mythological and historical figures have been used as subjects in art to support the interests of institutions, for example to glorify nations and other types of ruling bodies as well as to communicate valued religious and civic ideas, as we shall see here.

The Assumption of the Virgin in full view

The Assumption of the Virgin in full view

In the 1500s, early Protestants in northern Europe protested the doctrines, rituals, and structure of the Roman Catholic Church. These early Protestants criticized the Church’s patronage of the arts. For example, the Roman Catholic Church accepted as a matter of faith that the Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, died in the ordinary way of nature and then shortly afterward was assumed body and soul into heaven. Accounts of Mary’s Assumption into heaven were told in writings by early Christians that circulated perhaps as far back as the third century. Many works of art advanced by the Roman Catholic Church portrayed the Virgin Mary’s Assumption. However, since the account of Mary’s Assumption was not in the New Testament of the Bible, early Protestants deemed it to be unsubstantiated and unfit as a subject in art. Eventually the Roman Catholic Church reacted to the criticisms of early Protestants and initiated the Counter-Reformation. As part of their efforts, they addressed the role of art in religious matters. They stated that the goal of art in relation to the Roman Catholic Church was to teach religious narratives to a people, many of whom could neither read nor write. Importantly, the Roman Catholic Church accepted the Virgin Mary’s Assumption as a subject in art, because it was based on other stories of Mary in the New Testament and was a matter of faith. In addition, according to the Roman Catholic Church, artists were allowed to portray Christian narratives found in accounts outside of scripture in the Bible, such as those found in the Medieval source called the Golden Legend, first compiled in the thirteenth-century and within which there was an account of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption. There were only two criteria that artists had to follow: (1) artists had to bring images before the eyes of the viewer and make images real (visually and emotionally), and (2) images had to be tasteful.

Here we have a large-scale altarpiece made during the Counter-Reformation. Do you know what an altarpiece is? An altarpiece is a religious work of art that is suspended in a frame and placed behind an altar of a church. Altarpieces are meant to rouse viewers spiritually and inspire deep and profound devotion. This altarpiece depicts the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven and the apostles. Who were the apostles? The apostles were the twelve disciples of Jesus of Nazareth who were sent out to teach his gospel and spread the Good News. Who was Jesus? Jesus was a Jewish teacher from Galilee in Roman Judea and a central figure of Christianity. Most Christian denominations hold Jesus to be the son of God. The painting portrays two scenes. The first scene is one in which a multitude of angelic beings bear the Virgin Mary upward into a dazzling, golden light. The second scene is the discovery by the apostles of the Virgin’s empty, flower-filled tomb. The rich, dark background contrasts with the dramatic, heavenly light that surrounds the Virgin and shines down upon her youthful and expectant face. The apostles are all barefoot showing their humility and have a sculptural quality and weight.

Close-up of St. Peter

Close-up of St. Peter and John the Apostle

Can you identify any of the apostles in the work? First, Simon Peter, also known as St. Peter, is shown below the Virgin Mary, kneeling behind her tomb. He is depicted as an oldish, thick-set man with a short beard and balding head. He has propped up against the ledge of the Virgin’s tomb the book from which he conducted her funerary rites. In front of him on the ledge of the tomb is a large key. The key refers to one of the two keys to the kingdom of heaven that Jesus had given him as told in the Bible. The figure in the foreground on the left, who is witnessing the truth of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption, is Thomas the Apostle, who doubted Jesus’ resurrection as told in the Bible. Thomas is adorned in gold and has a blue fabric around his wrist that represents the sash (girdle) that it is believed the Virgin Mary threw down to him from heaven. The youthful figure kneeling at the Virgin’s empty, flower-filled tomb in the foreground on the right is John the Apostle. The bald man with the long, gray beard who is standing behind John and who is holding an open book and sword is Paul the Apostle, also known as St. Paul. The placement of the apostles, some of whom almost extend out of the picture plane, as well as the placement of the Virgin and angels bring viewers into the space and help connect them to the scene. Images are real, both visually and emotionally, and are tasteful, thus meeting the two criteria set out by the Roman Catholic Church.

As we are learning, art can be used as a means with which to communicate deeply held religious beliefs. Let’s examine the role that art can play in a similar fashion but in this instance to communicate valued civic ideas. From the 1700s onward, French royalty and revolutionaries alike supported art that could move citizens politically and morally. Works were painted to instill in viewers pride and honor. The goal was to encourage citizens to sacrifice themselves for the greater needs of society and country. As such, art became altarpieces for a new civic “religion.” When searching for subjects to paint, artists looked back to the art and mythology of ancient Greece and Rome—a time that many believed was inhabited with men and women who were both honorable and heroic. By harkening back to ancient times, it was hoped that citizens of the day would be equally honorable and heroic.

Death of Alcestis

The Death of Alcestis (close-up)
Pierre Peyron, French, 1794 (oil on canvas)
North Carolina Museum of Art

Let’s take a close look at one example. It is titled The Death of Alcestis by French artist Pierre Peyron. Peyron based his painting on the ancient Greek drama Alcestis by the poet Euripides. Are you familiar with this ancient tale? The heroine of the tale is Alcestis. Alcestis’ husband, Admetus, angers the gods and must die but is offered life as long as someone agrees to die in his place. After his aged parents refuse him, Alcestis volunteers to give her own life so that her husband’s life might be spared. Look closely. Describe the scene. Alcestis is on her deathbed. Her husband and young son are grieving by her side. Alcestis upholds her moral responsibility to her family, and by extension every citizen’s moral responsibility to country. The actions of Alcestis are honorable and heroic, and at first glance, tragic. Alcestis, in her willingness to sacrifice her own life for that of her husband’s, provides her with her own happy ending. How so? The ancient Greek mythological hero Herakles fights with death and wins, thus bringing Alcestis back from Hades and happily reuniting her with her family.

Thus far in this entry and the previous entry, we have looked at seven works of art, each one from a different culture, time and place. Let’s review. What did we learn? First, we learned that the history of art seems to be one in which leaders and those who have power and wealth portray themselves and their beliefs in ways that support and enhance their power and status. Second, we learned that art seems to be a means with which nations and other types of ruling bodies can shore up their power and communicate deeply held beliefs. So I ask you again, “What is art?” Think about this for a moment. What makes art, art? As we are learning, art is mainly a visual language of images that exert a kind of power over others. But images are everywhere today, not only in painting and sculpture. Besides leaders, who has power in society today? What about sports figures and actors and musicians? Do they use images to support and enhance their power and status? What do you think? Do images of celebrities exert a kind of power over us? How so? What are the characteristics of celebrities that matter to us? Is it their beauty? Wealth? Talent? Do famous people sometimes use their fame and power to promote the things they believe in? Are you more willing to listen to what a famous person has to say? Yes or no? Is it their images that give them great power over us? Think about this for a moment.

Our inquiry here, however, is about art, not about the many images of celebrities one finds in glossy magazines and on TV and in the movies. Moreover, not all images are art. So let’s get back to our main question: “What is art?” And equally important: “Who decides what is and what isn’t art?” Certainly, the power to decide seems to exist in the hands of the critics and dealers and collectors. It seems that these are the people who decide what is art and what isn’t. Value confirms greatness. The more popular a work of art is the more valuable it is and the greater its power. So, if one were to answer the question, “what is art?” one could answer, “art is about value!” which means money, pure and simple. To conclude with value, however, is to leave the question of “what is art?” unanswered. How so? Value (money) does not make art. Value is only a goal for those who use art to make more value. In the same vein, power does not make art. Power is only a goal for those who use art as a tool to reaffirm power. No! To answer the question of art and of great art in particular, one must focus instead on the artists who create art and the viewers who experience it.

Some people believe that artists recreate the world and in the process communicate an inner or personal vision of the world. Do you agree? Yes? No? How do artists communicate? By using the tools and techniques that are available to them? Does art move in new directions when new styles come about via new methods, technologies and materials as well as when new ways of thinking about reality emerge? It seems so. For example, the invention of the collapsible metal tube of paint made it possible for the Impressionists like Monet to go outdoors and paint more easily. The introduction of many new synthetic pigments in the 1800s gave the Impressionists as well as Post-Impressionists like the artist Vincent van Gogh an array of new colors to paint with. Scientific theories such as Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (1905) and discoveries of the molecular subdivision of matter led artists like Pablo Picasso to question the nature of reality and create works of art, in which objects were broken up and then reassembled in an abstract manner. But is it really the tools and the techniques and the ideas that turn images and objects into art? Perhaps art is made when artists are so adept at manipulating the tools and techniques and ideas via the elements of art that they are able to engage viewers over and over again and move them both emotionally and intellectually. Perhaps this is what makes art, art.

The Starry NightVincent Willem van Gogh, Dutch, 1889 (oil on canvas)Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Starry Night
Vincent Willem van Gogh, Dutch, 1889 (oil on canvas)
Museum of Modern Art, New York

I can think of no better example than the painting The Starry Night by the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh to illustrate what it means for an artist to be so adept at manipulating the tools and techniques and ideas via the elements of art such that no matter how many times many viewers gaze at the painting they become visually engaged and are affected both emotionally and intellectually. Van Gogh based this work on a night view outside a sanitarium room window in southern France where he was staying to recover from a recurring bout of anxiety and mental illness. The work reveals an inner, subjective expression of the artist’s response to nature. It is based on his imagination as well as his memory.

Van Gogh painted the real landscape around Saint-Paul-de-Mausole—quiet village, tiled rooftops, surrounding mountain range. But he didn’t stop there. He turned his landscape into a visionary, some say hallucinatory dream, with its prominent church spire that evokes his native land of the Netherlands, with its swelling forms of mountains pounding like waves upon an unsuspecting shore, with its pulsating and swirling shooting stars and bright crescent moon in a churning nighttime sky, and with its impressive cypresses that rise up to meet a universe that presses down low. The thick impasto (visible strokes), swirling forms, and stark contrast between cool blues and fiery yellows ask the viewer to ponder the juxtaposition between the small, quiet and seemingly insignificant village of men and women and children who are going to sleep or just waking up and the mysterious workings of a universe that roars with an energy all its own.

Self Portrait, Vincent Van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Self Portrait
Vincent Van Gogh, Dutch, 1888
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

It may just be me, but Van Gogh’s painting appears to have a vitality akin to revelation. Van Gogh, however, claimed Starry Night did not relate in any way to religious ideas. But his vision is so personal, so immediate, one can’t help but see the eternal, the divine, the infinite in his work. Van Gogh wrote simply in a letter to his brother Theo from France at the time:

“This morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.”

In his younger years, Van Gogh dedicated his life to the evangelization of the poor. It may just be me, but I see the artist’s religious fervor reflected in the canvas. Perhaps the yearning cypress trees in the foreground show man’s need for redemption, for his desire to reach for something beyond his grasp. Perhaps in viewing this work, we are reminded of the first time we looked up at the stars and pondered the seeming insignificance of man in the midst of such vastness and then calmly asked ourselves, “What exists beyond the dark and starry skies?”

As Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night shows us, art and great art in particular heightens our senses such that we experience something on a deep level. “To heighten experience” is key here. Art presents the world in such a way that it shocks, not in the sense of a shock of meaning (although modern art certainly does this), but shock in the sense of stirring one’s emotions and bringing into focus one’s experience of the world, visually and otherwise, over and over again. Great art in particular transports one’s sense of reality to a place that is often greater than reality in and of itself. We see this time and time again throughout the history of art. Ancient Greek sculpture of ideal gods and goddesses offered a sense of the human figure that was akin to reality but much, much greater. The pyramids overwhelmed viewers with awe as they still do today. “Great art lasts,” we all say. What we mean by this statement is that great art heightens viewers’ sense of the world over and over again. It makes viewers full with the “truth” of the world. Think of any number of great pieces of art, and you will understand how great art continues to transport viewers as much today as it did in the past. Therein lies the essence of great artists and great art and the viewers who experience it. Therein lies the true power of art!

But what about art that appears to have been made with little effort?” you ask. “Is this really art?” Why don’t we take a look at one example of this. Let’s study one of the most renowned found-object sculptures in the history of art. It was made by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso.

Bull’s Head

Bull’s Head
Pablo Picasso, Spanish, 1942 (bronze)
Musee Picasso, Paris, France

Look closely. What is this object made of? It is made of an old bicycle seat and handlebars! How do the parts come together? The parts come together to form a bull’s head. Art historians call it a found-object sculpture. What does this mean? What is a found-object sculpture? A found-object sculpture is made of existing objects that are mass produced and have a function but are combined in such a way that they acquire a new identity as a work of art. Found-object sculpture emphasizes art’s intellectual content and shifts attention away from the act or craft involved in its creation. Was Picasso following the assertion by many modern artists that for the artist it was only the idea that mattered, not the craft? Perhaps. However, I can not stress enough the degree to which Picasso’s work is visually arresting. Bull’s Head heightens the viewer’s emotional state. How so? For the artist who made it, perhaps the image is evocative of the matadors and bullrings of his native land. However, for others the work may be just as meaningful. In what way? It is a powerful image stripped down to its essence. It may just be me, but in viewing the work, within which there is a sense of humor a well as irony, the entire history of art flashes before my eyes. I am transported to the place where there is some of the earliest evidence of art and civilization—to the walls of caves, where man’s early ancestors, the hunter-gatherers, painted images of wild horses and herds of bison. That some people consider Bull’s Head to be conceptual; namely, that ideas about the work take precedence over aesthetic and material concerns, is not entirely correct. Indeed, perhaps if Bull’s Head did not have the visual impact that it clearly conveys, it would not be as renowned. That it can speak to us on an emotional level means that perhaps it will endure far into the future.

Photo of an actual bull's head grazing.

Photo of an actual bull’s head, grazing.

To answer the question, “what is art?” then is to answer, “Art is a medium through which viewers connect to the world, to themselves and to others.” This connection can rush forth and be felt in a very profound way, or it can bubble up gently and be more subtle. Understandably, art must be on view somewhere—either in a public space or in some private space—in order for it to be a medium through which viewers connect to the world, to themselves and to others. Of course! But what is great art? Simply put, great art is a medium through which viewers connect to the world, to themselves and to others but on a very deep level, over and over again, over the course of many, many years. Think about everyday experiences that exhilarated you and connected you to the world, to yourself and to others. Perhaps after you climbed to the top of a mountain and had a bird’s eye view of a valley below you felt more alive. Perhaps you felt renewed and experienced a subtle shift in meaning and purpose when you heard a beautiful song of a bird. Perhaps you felt invigorated when you visited a bustling city and saw the skyscrapers rise up before you and the people rushing to-and-fro. Perhaps you felt a profound sense of connection to the world when you fell in love. One is transported when one is deeply connected to the world and to others via one’s senses. Art and great art in particular does just this. It reaches back to when man first painted on the walls of the caves and transported him to a place that was immediate and real.

Let’s end our discussion for now. Be sure to follow along as we revisit the topic in our next entry and once again ask the question, ‘What is art?”


Would you like to see Assumption of the Virgin and Death of Alcestis in person? All you have to do is visit the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina. Assumption of the Virgin and Death of Alcestis are in the European galleries at the museum. If you would you like to see The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, you will have to pay a visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. I’m sure someone there will be happy to point you in the right direction. As for Bull’s Head, you can see this found-object sculpture at the Musee Picasso in Paris, France. If you are interested in having a tour at either the North Carolina Museum of Art or at MoMA, check on-line or call ahead to find out the days and times tours are given to the public. Or perhaps you can contact either of these museums ahead of time and arrange for you and your friends to have a private tour. I’m sure a docent at either the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh or the Museum of Modern Art in New York would be happy to show you and your friends the many wonderful works of art. Whether you visit these museums on your own or have a tour with a docent, it will be well worth your time!


I would like to thank Generose Koeppl for her kind and expert assistance in the points made in my discussion pertaining to the Counter Reformation and, in particular, Stanzione’s painting—Assumption of the Virgin.