Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple

November 14th 2020

“Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple”, Titian, c.1534 -38,  Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice.   
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Titian painted this canvas between 1534 and 1538 for a room in the Scoula Grande di S. Maria della Carità in Venice.  Later on the room became part of the Galleria dell’ Accademia.  “ The Golden Legend” relates that Mary was presented in the Temple.  When Mary was weaned, her parents took her there to give thanks.  When her parents placed her on the lowest of the Temple’s steps, the three year old mounted them without any help.  This was a popular legend and Titian could draw upon the work of other artists who had painted this subject.  However, the location specified for the work presented Titian with particular challenges.  It was to cover a wall over 25 feet wide and there was a doorway on the lower right.   Titian solved this problem by painting masonry around the door as if it were the lintel over an entrance to a cellar.  Another door on the left was added later on.  But it is Titian’s use of light that is most striking.  Natural light in the room came from the left and Titian follows this in the painting.  The frieze -like composition reads from left to right had been common in earlier Venetian narrative painting.   Titian lets the procession follow the natural light. The buildings in the background on the right are darker than the landscape to the left, so that our eyes are drawn to the bright sunlit steps as they ascend towards the Temple entrance. The small girl is dressed in blue, echoing the sky and the mountains on the left.  The child is surrounded by a kind of mandorla of golden rays so that man in the background must shade his eyes.  Earlier artists used actual gold to show divine light.  But Venetian artists such as Bellini replaced the reflective surface of gold by light as seen in the natural world.  On the carved ceiling above the painting, there is a figure of Christ with the words “Sum Lux Mundi” – “I am the Light of the World” . It is Mary who is destined to be the bearer of the Light of the World.  Previous artists gave her a lighted candle to express her unique role.  However,  by clever use of colour and light Titian shows her to be the light bearer and perhaps even the source of light.    We celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Saturday.

Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple

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