Since the early centuries of Christianity, the theme of the Assumption of the Virgin (or simply the Assumption, as the faithful commonly refer to it) has drawn the attention of artists intent on translating into images the copious collection of stories told not only by the canonical Gospels but also by the New Testament apocrypha. The apocryphal Gospels enriched and accompanied the original texts with notes and interpretations that could often not be proven historically, but were useful for modelling examples of virtue for the faithful.
For the thinkers of the period, the lack of information about the story of the mother of Christ after her death made drawing any conclusions about the end of her earthly life difficult. Since the end of the 4th century, various theories on the very nature of her maternity had been proposed. In fact, the archangel Gabriel announces a miraculous pregnancy to Mary, which is not the consequence of her earthly union with a man, but the result of her having been touched by the Divine Spirit, the only fitting beginning for the Son of God. Constructing the veneration of Mary in opposition to Eve, and therefore creating a female model of purity and chastity that was directly opposed to the image of the woman responsible for the original sin, also called for a plausible representation of her life after death.
In keeping with Early Christian writings which promoted the theory that the Virgin was not physically dead but simply asleep, with her soul and body transferred to another dimension, an extremely striking iconographic motif soon became popular, portrayed in large fresco cycles or in small paintings: the Dormitio Virginis, the scene in which Mary is lying on her bed, surrounded by the apostles, who witness her “transit”, that is, her passing from the earthly dimension to the realm of the divine. A small panel of the Uffizi icon collection shows an example of this particular iconography, which would survive, in a variety of styles and interpretations, until the 18th century.
Surrounded by the apostles and her relatives, Mary is leaving the world of men. The presence of Christ, enclosed in the characteristic circle of angels (mandorla) that emphasises his descent from the sky, underline her change of condition. Christ is holding the “animula”, the personification of the Virgin’s spirit, which he will carry with him into the afterlife.
Alongside the iconography of the Dormitio Virginis, between the 16th and 17th centuries, a variant that depicted Mary’s journey towards heaven, and the apostles finding her tomb empty, was developed and put into practice. The many theological implications linked also to the unrest caused by the reforms and the differing views about the truths behind faith, favoured the choice of this subject from many commissioning patrons, and encouraged artists to look for increasingly detailed, spectacular narrative solutions that aimed to touch the deepest chords of devotional sentiment. In this hypervision, we will try to follow the threads of this story through the works of the Uffizi Galleries.
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In the Uffizi Galleries collections, we can see many times the theme of the Assumption: paintings, but also drawings and prints illustrate, with a wide iconographic variety, the moment when Mary abandons the earthly dimension and is welcomed into the heavenly one.
However, of all the examples, two stand out for their imposing size and spectacular composition, namely those traditionally referred to as “Panciatichi” and "Passerini", painted between 1523 and 1528 by Andrea del Sarto, and today located in the Room of Iliad in the Palatine Gallery in Palazzo Pitti.
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The two altarpieces were originally meant to decorate the main wall of a chapel and a main altar:
the former was requested by Bartolomeo Panciatichi the Elder, a richer banker who worked in Lyon and wanted to set up a family chapel in the church of Notre-Dame du Confort. However, the altarpiece never reached its destination and was first kept in his son’s house in Florence, before passing into the hands of the Salviati family, and then to the Medici in 1556.
Instead, the latter was commissioned by noblewoman Margherita Passerini for the main altar of the church of the Servite Order in Cortona. It remained there until 1639, the year in which it passed to the Grand Duke Ferdinand and was transported to Florence to enrich the Pitti collections. In the 18th century, both were framed in luxurious carved, gilded wooden ornaments which have survived until today, and from 1819 onwards they were included in the first exhibition of the Palatine Gallery.
In the Passerini Assumption, the painter basically re-proposed the same compositional scheme used a few years earlier in the painting for the Panciatichi, dividing the scene into two levels, the divine space and the human one, but connected by the bare, chipped rock that rises in the background. The apostles gather at the bottom of the painting, having reached Mary’s tomb, now empty. The sudden revelation of that prodigy releases a theatre of emotions that Andrea has captured in a series of unforgettable expressions and gestures, each one unique.
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Passerini Assumption, detail
On the left, the apostle is depicted in profile, with a wide piece of yellow cloth draped over his hips. He is looking up at the sky, almost in disbelief, while his left hand, raised and open, shows all his shock, so much so that we almost feel as if we can hear him holding his breath for a long moment. To the right, his young companion is leaning slightly forward, continuing to scour the interior of the sarcophagus as he searches for a sign of the Virgin’s mortal body.
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Panciatichi Assumption, detail
Two apostles, in the foreground, are kneeling as a sign of their devotion: the one on the left leaves the scene for a moment and looks straight at the spectator, inviting him or her to become part of that extraordinary event he is experiencing with his companions. Even the pink cloak he is wearing over his grey tunic appears to come to life and billows up on his shoulders, settling into folds, dips and corners that run down like a waterfall, converging on the ground.
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Passerini Assumption, detail
In the Passerini Assumption, the painter arranges the figure in the same position, modifying the way the cloak hangs down. Here the cloak becomes a pluvial, the distinctive mark of the holy bishop wearing it, St Nicholas of Bari, patron saint of the Passerini family. Likewise, the presence of St Margherita alludes to the commissioner of the work, Margherita Passerini. The latter donated to the church of the Servites a lavish set of vestments from her family property in velvet, brocade, gold and silver threads. The collection of pieces not only included ceremonial vestments but also altar furnishings such as the lectern cover, and "paliotto” (the fabric that covered the front part of the tabletop). Around 1515, Andrea del Sarto himself, together with Raffaellino del Garbo, had supplied the drawings for the decorations of the extraordinary set, today kept in the Civic Museum of Cortona.
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Panciatichi Assumption, detail
“Our Lady, surrounded by a choir of cherubs, while others hold her up and carry her with a unique grace”: this is how Giorgio Vasari described the top part of the Panciatichi Assumption, summarising all the value and strength of the painting in just a few lines. Mary is literally lifted up on a soft platform of clouds, and the angels busy themselves around her, forming a small circle of infant nudes, all of perfect proportions and with lively demeanours which can be glimpsed in the cheeky glances they cast at the spectator.
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Panciatichi Assumption, detail
At the bottom, one of the cherubs, with a fearless, domineering stance, is leaning out, offering his shoulder as a footrest for the Virgin. He is looking at the Apostles and clearly indicating the Virgin’s journey towards the sky. This is an idea already used by Rosso in the Assumption he had painted in the fresco for the Chiostrino dei Voti in the Santissima Annunziata Basilica about ten years earlier.
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Passerini Assumption, detail
In the second version, the Virgin is no longer rapt in divine contemplation, but still part of the earthly world: her intense, serious gaze is directed at the men and her hands clasped in prayer are an invitation to contemplate and reflect on the mystery of the divine.
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Passerini Assumption, detail
Vasari and other painters practised to reproduce the same breezy, carefree sense of freedom conveyed by that ring of children around the Virgin, emulating the two altarpieces by Andrea del Sarto.
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Sketch for the figure of St Mary of the Assumption
Black pencil on white paper
GDSU 303 F
Vasari relates that the Andrea del Sarto’s main skill was his ability to give his figures a “very realistic sweetness”, making them seem “simple and pure”. The secret behind his painting, a combination of stateliness, precision, balance and naturalness, lies in the careful preparation of each picture, by preparing a series of sketches.
With a view to exploring the position of the bodies in the space more effectively, as well as their texture, the way their hands and arms moved, the effect of the light, Andrea would use junior members of the workshop as models, or other helpers and sometimes even his family: for example in this sheet (303F) he studies the figure of the Virgin using a young adolescent, outlined in profile with the soft stroke of a black pencil. The model is completely nude, to allow the painter to master every single anatomical detail as effectively as possible, and to make his depiction more realistic, only adding the cloth robe at a later stage. This process followed a long-standing tradition upheld in the Florentine workshops, which Leon Battista Alberti had presented in his essay on painting the previous century: “when dressing the man, first he is drawn nude, then he is surrounded by clothes”.
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Federico Zuccari, Cornelis Cort, Antonio Lafreri
Annunciation with Prophets
Department of Prints and Drawings
Stampe sciolte 1384
In this print, Federico Zuccari illustrates one of his most successful inventions, taken from the fresco of the same subject that he had painted in the Church of Santa Maria Annunziata in the Roman College. As if in a theatre scene, the protagonists appear in a solemn vision, which combines both the Old and New testaments, under the aegis of God the father who reigns from above. His gesture is ordering the descent of the dove, symbol of the holy spirit and of the angel that announces Mary’s destiny to her. At the sides, the prophets Jeremiah, Haggai, Solomon, Isaiah, David and Moses, patron saints of the ancient history of Israel, gather in the hemicycle, while the two Progenitors Adam and Eve, sit in the top corners. Their story, according to the Christian faith, is a direct premise to the advent of Christ and Mary’s immaculate conception.
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Piero di Cosimo
Immaculate Conception with Saints Filippo Benizi, St John the Evangelist, Catherine of Alexandria, Margherita, Peter and Antonino Pierozzi
Gallery of Statues and Paintings, room 28
The mystery of divine incarnation in the Virgin’s pure, mortal body, subject of many religious discussions over the centuries, is the main theme of the altarpiece of Piero di Cosimo, ordered by the Tedaldi family for their chapel in the Santissima Annunziata Basilica in Florence. Conceived in line with the model of the Holy Conversation, the scene is focused on the figure of Mary, isolated like a statue on the sharp-edged stone base, enveloped by the cone of strong light that rains down from above, characterised as supernatural by the presence of the white dove, symbol of purity. The Virgin’s hand on her belly preannounces her pregnancy and her rapt gaze reveals her acceptance of a mission that will bring her the joy of motherhood but also the agonising pain of witnessing the suffering of her son on the cross. St John the Evangelist, on the left, is indicating the spectacular moment in progress to the spectator, while the presence of St Peter, on the right preannounces the foundation of the Christian church. A small Annunciation - the moment immediately prior to the incarnation - is sculpted in relief on the pedestal, while the Birth of Christ and the Escape to Egypt, depicted on the two sides in the background, illustrate the continuation of the evangelical story.Artwork detailsThe incarnation of Jesus and the saints Philip Benizi, John the Evangelist, Catherine of Alexandria, Margaret, Peter and Antoninus PierozziArchitettura | Gli Uffizi
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Allegory of the Immaculate Conception
Gallery of Statues and Paintings, room 81
"And a great wonder appeared in the sky; a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars upon her head. She was pregnant and was crying out because of her labour pains. And another sign appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads; and his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to be delivered, ready to devour her newborn child.”
This is how St John the Baptist comments in the Book of Revelation on the female apparition which, in Christian faith is identified as Mary, mother of Christ and immaculate young woman, whose purity opposes the original sin of Eve.
Around this theme, which took on a particular importance in the context of the discussions about faith in the central years of the 16th century, Vasari conceived a complicated composition for a large altarpiece ordered by Bindo Altoviti in the church of the Saint Apostles in Florence, from which he also took other smaller versions, like the one on display in the Uffizi today.
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Treasury of the Grand Dukes
The precious ivory exhibited in Palazzo Pitti, destined for private worship, is a small version of the most popular model of the Immaculate Conception between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, particularly appreciated in the Spanish area in the interpretations of Jusepe de Ribera, Zubaran, Murillo.
Flemish sculptor Claude Beissonat, active in Naples in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, stood out for his production of religious objects, characterised by a refined carving technique that complements and enhances the diaphanous texture of the ivory.
Mary stands on the soft cloud edged with the heads of angels from which, in line with the story in the Book of Revelation, the lunar crescent and the head of the dragon/snake that threatens her maternity emerge. Her soft cloak, billowing slightly in the wind, defines subtle tricks of lights and shade, while the Virgin’s sweet face, framed by her loose hair, betrays all the emotion of the divine encounter and the awareness of her maternal role.
Text by Anna Bisceglia
Graphics by Patrizia Naldini
Translations: Eurotrad Snc.
Photographs by Roberto Palermo e Frencesco del Vecchio
Please note: each image of this virtual exhibition may be enlarged for more detailed viewing.