The Visual Narratives of El Greco, Annibale Carracci and Rubens: Altarpieces of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in the Early Modern Age

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Stoenescu, Livia
Art History , Late Renaissance , Counter-Reformation , Devotional Art , Italy , Spain , the Netherlands
The Assumption of the Virgin Mary has been regarded as a normative subject of post-Tridentine altarpiece production. Yet it is actually a complex pictorial allegory that comments upon an archaic tradition of Christian narratives and its intersection with Marian devotion. The Assumption of the Virgin Mary belongs to a tradition of devotional images in which the Eucharistic meaning is the preferred means for furthering narrative ideas. The deeper meaning of the Assumption altarpiece becomes apparent in the light of the following points, demonstrated repeatedly throughout the study: 1) altarpieces of the Assumption represent a Marian subject informed by narrative liberty, not views of iconography and Tridentine history 2) their imagery is largely based upon visual narratives associated with the historical imagination of the painter 3) they disallow the pre-eminence of the classical model and incorporate other models derived from a resemblance to Byzantine icons and Northern prints 4) they are analogous to icons, essays praising truthfulness and inwardness which operate to convey complex pictorial ideas in narrative adaptations. The first chapter evaluates the narrative source of El Greco’s altarpieces from Toledo. The medieval past of Toledo fused with the Byzantine tradition in an altarpiece form for which parallels are rare in the modern age. The second chapter examines Annibale Carracci’s main Assumption altarpieces and a selection of related paintings. For Annibale Carracci, the original setting at the high altar safeguards the Eucharistic meaning of his Assumption narrative and in turn shapes the narrative link with the adjoining altarpieces. The third chapter involves the Northern devotional print as a narrative outset of Federico Zuccari’s and Rubens’ altarpieces. Their narrative solutions negotiate complex pictorial allegories and further the claim for truthfulness of representation inherent in the print.
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