El Greco’s Assumption of the Virgin:
Man’s Lifting of Mary unto God
HAA 130: Introduction to European Art
The masterpiece that is El Greco’s Assumption of the Virgin leaves the viewer breathless upon first sight of it monumental stature. Without yet being close enough to notice the fine details it contains, Assumption draws you in to take a closer look because of its impossible-to-miss size. My eyes were drawn to the front-and-center image of the Virgin Mary, soaring high above the men below. I then noticed the actions of the men in the crowds with their hands, and drew the conclusion that the true focal point was the space below the Virgin. A grid can be imagined over the painting and a clear-cut cross can be made out in the center. This geometric positioning coupled with the presumed starting point of Mary’s ascent signaled by the gestures of the crowds led me to be certain of the focal point being below Mary. With that said, the viewer is then able to trace Mary’s ascent with his eyes, as El Greco most likely intended.
At a shallow glance, El Greco’s Assumption of the Virgin shows Mary’s ascension to the heavens, but the painting contains much more. An in-depth study reveals mankind’s literal presentation of Mary to God for appraisal and judgment, rather than a simple depiction of her journey upward. The painting illustrates man’s--not God’s--physical act of lifting Mary up, creating a truly dynamic canvas. To do all of this, El Greco uses strong geometric divisions and hidden lines to take control of the viewer’s eyes. His manipulation of space creates the illusion that the image is truly in motion. In the end, El Greco uses the painting’s overwhelming size and orientation to alter perspective and succeeds in placing the viewer into the scene itself.
El Greco, translated as ‘The Greek’, painted his Assumption of the Virgin in 1577 for the convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, Spain. This was at a time in Spain when Catholicism became threatened by the growing Protestant presence and, according to Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, El Greco “[was] a key example of an artist who understood the power that images could have to move souls, and his emphatic religious work was welcomed in Spain.”[footnoteRef:1] [1: 1 Dr. Lauren G. Kilroy-Ewbank, "The Renaissance in Spain," Smarthistory, July 1, 2018, accessed November 03, 2018, https://smarthistory.org/the-renaissance-in-spain/.]
Born in Greece as Domenikos Theotokopoulos, El Greco was a top artist when he moved to Toledo in 1577 and he was commissioned to paint the Assumption to adorn the convent’s altar. This painting is surprisingly unlike any of his previous works. Before moving to Spain, El Greco spent some time amongst the Italians in Venice and Rome, and this is arguably where he drew his new, classical and religious style of art from.[footnoteRef:2] The painting towers over the surrounding exhibits at the Art Institute at about seven feet wide and thirteen feet tall, and it rests insid...