THE ASSUMPTION OF THE VIRGIN

(TITIAN)

THÉOPHILE GAUTIER

The pearl of the Museum at Madrid is a Raphael; that of Venice is a Titian, a marvellous canvas, forgotten and afterwards recovered, which has its legend also. For many long years Venice possessed this masterpiece without knowing it. Relegated to an old and seldom frequented church it had disappeared under a slow coating of dust and behind a network of spider-webs. The subject could scarcely be made out. One day, Count Cicognora, a great connoisseur, noticing that these rusty figures had a certain air, and scenting the master under this livery of neglect and misery, wetted his finger and rubbed the canvas, an action which is not one of exquisite propriety, but which an expert on pictures cannot help doing when he is face to face with a dirty canvas, be he twenty times a count and a thousand times a dandy. The noble picture, preserved intact under this layer of dust, like Pompeii under its mantle of ashes, appeared so young and fresh that the count never doubted but that he had discovered the canvas of a great master, an unknown chef-d'œuvre. He had the strength of mind to control his excitement, and proposed to the curé to exchange this great dilapidated painting for a beautiful picture, quite new, perfectly clean, very brilliant, and well framed, which would do honour to the church and give pleasure to the faithful. The curé joyfully accepted it, smiling to himself at the eccentricity of the count, who gave new for old and demanded nothing in return.

When relieved of its dirt and stains, Titian's Assunta appeared radiant as the sun when it bursts through the clouds. Parisian readers may form an idea of the importance of this discovery by going to see the beautiful copy, recently made by Serrur and placed in the Beaux Arts. The Assunta is one of Titian's greatest works, the one in which he attains his highest flight: the composition is balanced and distributed with infinite art. The upper portion, which is arched, represents Paradise, Glory, as the Spanish say in their ascetic language: garlands of angels floating and submerged in a wave of light of uncalculable depth, stars scintillating in the flame, and brighter glints of the everlasting light form the aureole of the Father, who arrives from the depths of the infinite with the action of a hovering eagle, accompanied by an archangel and a seraph whose hands support the crown and the nimbus.

This Jehovah, like a divine bird appearing head-foremost and with body horizontally foreshortened beneath a wave of drapery flying open like wings, astonishes us by its sublime boldness; if it is possible for the brush of a human being to give a countenance to divinity, certainly Titian has succeeded. Unlimited power and imperishable youth radiate from that white-bearded face that need only nod for the snows of eternity to fall: not since the Olympian Jove of Phidias has the lord of heaven and earth been represented more worthily.

The Assumption of the Virgin. Titian.

The Assumption of the Virgin.
Titian.

The centre of the picture is occupied by the Virgin Mary, who is lifted up, or rather who is surrounded by a wreath of angels and souls of the blessed: for she has no need of any aid to mount to Heaven; she rises by the springing upward of her robust faith, by the purity of her soul, which is lighter than the most luminous ether. Truly there is in this figure an unheard-of force of ascension, and in order to obtain this effect Titian has not had recourse to slender forms, diaphanous draperies, and transparent colours. His Madonna is a very true, very living, and very real woman, with a beauty as solid as that of the Venus de Milo, or the sleeping woman in the Tribune of Florence. Large, full drapery flows about her in numerous folds; her flanks are wide enough to have contained a God, and, if she was not on a cloud, the Marquis du Guast might have put his hand on her beautiful bosom, as in the picture in our Museum. Yet nothing is of more celestial beauty than this great and strong figure in its rose-coloured tunic and azure mantle; notwithstanding the powerful voluptuousness of the body, the radiant glance is of the purest virginity.

At the base of the picture, the apostles are grouped in happily-contrasted attitudes of rapture and surprise. Two or three little angels, who link them to the intermediary zone of the composition, seem to be explaining to them the miracle that is taking place. The heads of the apostles, who are of various ages and characters, are painted with a surprising force of vitality and reality. The draperies are of that fullness and abundant flow that characterize Titian as the richest and at the same time the simplest of all painters.