Sacred masterpieces can help broaden a Catholic's faith

  • September 16, 2010
My usual reason for going to Venice has to do with contemporary culture. I went there last month, for example, to write about the 12th Biennale of Architecture for a Canadian magazine. The famous show (which runs until late November) is a fascinating survey of the things advanced architects, artists and theorists in many countries are thinking about these days, and I’m glad I was able to take it in.

But before I left for Venice, I made up my mind to do more than keep my nose to the architectural grindstone — to take some time off, that is, and revisit some old acquaintances among the religious canvases and murals that grace the island city’s churches, historic charitable foundations (called “scuoli”) and public buildings.

In this mission, as in my more official assignment, I was certainly not disappointed. High on my list of paintings to see again was Titian’s resplendent Assumption of the Virgin (1518), the altarpiece in the basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Though very widely reproduced, the actual painting has a freshness and brilliance about it that is always surprising.

The wonder of the work is not in its composition, which is simple and straightforward. The apostles and other witnesses are gathered in a dense crowd at the bottom of the frame. At the top is the welcoming Father and angels, and in between these two levels is the ascending Virgin, dressed in a scarlet robe and attended by clouds of boy-angels. What makes this painting work so marvellously is Titian’s unification of its disparate parts in a heavenly shower of golden light. Mary is very human in this portrayal — a full-figured Venetian woman, youthful, though not young — yet she is being transfigured before our eyes into an existence beyond ordinary humanity.

Like all sacred art, the Assumption is less a visual narrative of an historical event than an interpretation of that event in Christian faith and practice. I suppose the painting can be appreciated in a merely esthetic, art-historical manner. But for Titian, and for believers who witness what he has made with an open heart, the work is primarily a celebration of the promise made in the Assumption of blessed Mary — the promise that, at the end of history, when everything in heaven and Earth is reconciled and Christ becomes all in all, our material bodies will be similarly transformed and filled with light.

Another place with much Christian significance is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, the home of a charity, which was decorated by the Venetian artist Tintoretto over a 23-year period beginning in 1564. The artist’s great cycle of canvases depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments culminates in his vast, crowded panorama of Calvary.

Henry James echoed the opinion of many viewers of this painting when he wrote: “Surely no single picture contains more of human life; there is everything in it, including the most exquisite beauty.” To the Christian imagination, however, the most intriguing thing about the picture is not its esthetic virtue, but the wide variety of attention being paid by its human figures to the crucifixion itself. We see in Tintoretto’s vision a fateful reminder of the contemporary Church’s awareness of the Lord’s redemptive death, with a few rapt in devotion, some gazing at the cross in a bemused fashion, and many too busy with other things to pay close regard to the great mystery unfolding in their midst.

For the Christian, the contemplation of sacred masterpieces from the past can always be more than a pleasurable pastime. It is able to broaden and deepen our understanding of what it means to be Christian believers in the modern world.

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