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    Titian’s Altarpieces Essay (2398 words)

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    What was the importance of these two altarpieces for the development of painting in Venice, both from a stylistic and iconographic point of view? It has been said that Titian’s Assunta, which adorns the high altar, and Pesaro (on the left aisle of the chapel of the Immaculate Conception) stand mid-way between the past and the future of Venetian painting.

    This infers that Titian drew on established traditions learned from his masters Bellini and Giorgione and imbued his works with a freshness and inspiration not seen before. Furthermore, it becomes apparent that his sensitive construction of the works, considering the authority of his patrons, facilitates a depth of interpretation that highlights both the sacred and civic concerns of the time. To illustrate Titian’s progressive role in Venetian art history, I will draw on Renaissance documentation and contemporary research that notes the stylistic and iconographic elements of these altarpieces. In 1568, the Florentine chronicler Vasari wrote of Titian, “Titian… who has adorned with great pictures the City of Venice… deserves the love and respect of all craftsmen, who ought to admire and imitate him in many things.

    For he is a painter who has produced… work which…

    Will live as long as the memory of illustrious men endures.” This is a useful starting point for such an investigation: this representation is valid since Vasari had met and spoken to him while writing the book, and being a Florentine, he wasn’t so susceptible to employing the Venetian rhetoric, which could tend to be biased. The contemporary chronicler Ludovico Dolce recorded the shock and criticism the Assunta attracted when it was first unveiled. Such controversy points to its radicalism and supports assertions that it was influential for developing artists: “For all the panel’s grandeur and awesomeness, the oafish painters and the foolish masses, who until then had seen nothing but the dead and cold works of Giovanni Bellini, of Gentile, and of Vivarino…

    Which were without movement and modeling, grossly defamed the picture. Then, as envy cooled and the truth slowly dawned on them, people began to marvel at the new style established in Venice by Titian…” There is good reason to conclude that the Assunta and Pesaro altarpieces rank amongst the finest and most notable of Titian’s works. In his book, The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice, Peter Humfrey claims that the exceptionally large number of churches in Venice elevated the prevalence of this style, as they all needed to be decorated.

    The lack of fresco painting (due to the humid climate) meant more panel paintings were constructed, and so “Venetian painters tended to concentrate their most ambitious efforts… on altar painting.” Limitations of the investigation: The lack of primary documentation from this era hinders our ability to place the artwork in its socio-cultural context.

    When relying on the rhetoric of the state-appointed historians, we must consider the bias that results from their upholding of the Myth of Venice. Obviously, the value of these to the research question is limited. Being contemporary, they are unable to describe Titian’s long-term influence on Venetian painting.

    Definition of key terms: When analyzing artwork from a stylistic point of view, all visual (not metaphorical) factors are taken into account. Issues of composition, symmetry and asymmetry, color palette, application of paint, and rendering of forms are all relevant. Iconography refers to any elements of the painting that can be left open for a religious or sacred interpretation. These two points of view are inextricably linked: for example, the placement (re: composition, thus stylistic element) of the Madonna and Child, elevated in the center of a devotional painting also has iconographic references. This was their traditional position, and portrayed their roles as intercessors between the figures below and God in Heaven above.

    In this context, the altarpiece refers to a painting set behind an above the altar in a Christian church. Painted altarpieces might be accompanied by sculpture, as in the case of Titian’s Assunta, which features three free-standing marble figures on the frame. The term sacra conversazione refers to the type of composition made popular by Bellini, where a group of saints are gathered in a unified space. Any conversation between saints is solely spiritual and internal. Paradoxically, as soon as obvious communication takes place (in the case of Titian’s Pesaro), the composition no longer conforms to what constitutes a sacra conversazione.

    Established traditions in altarpiece design: Titian was painting amongst the turbulent climate of the age of Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. This may have influenced his work, endowing it with a greater sense of drama and more overt display of emotion which is evident especially in Assunta. This was a significant development from the entrenched Venetian style established by Bellini. His altarpieces were characteristically tranquil and meditative (Humfrey refers to Bellini’s Diletti, S. Giobbe, and St. Catherine of Sienna altarpieces in defining the sacra conversazione). His style embodies the Venetian ethos of La Serenissima.

    Stylistic developments in Assunta and Pesaro altarpieces: While depictions of the Assumption scene had been painted by such names as Vivarini and Palma Vecchio, Titian’s subjects are much more powerfully built and more dynamic in their gestures than the relatively angular and timid figures in the earlier altarpieces. There is a mood of vivacity and upward movement, driven by the shifts in dark and light through the three zones (disciples, Madonna, God, and angels).

    The viewer’s eye is arrested by the raised arms of the disciples, and the foreshortening of the virgin’s body refuses to let the eye rest until it reaches the sweeping group of angels. Rosand affirms the stylistic importance of this work in suggesting that its unveiling heralded the arrival of the classical High Renaissance in Venice. Titian’s dramatic gestures and breadth of form draw comparisons to the art of Raphael, and in particular, his Assumption. Some scholars suggest Titian may have seen preparatory sketches for this work around the time he received the commission for Assunta, in which case the originality of his work is dubious.

    However, the fact that he hadn’t yet undertaken the artist’s pilgrimage to Rome and viewed the works of Raphael and his contemporaries offers credibility in terms of his artistic innovation. A justification of why Assunta was not accepted by the patron, Guardian of the Franciscan order, Fra Germano, was because the human forms are too sensual. A highly rhetorical passage from a 1910 book by Charles Ricketts asserts that “the face of Mary satisfies us as expressing ecstasy in a human type”. While being ultimately subjective, it sheds light on how people would personally react to it. The exuberant vitality would have been frightening and even offensive to generations used to Bellini’s style. The Assunta is notable in combining two significant biblical events: the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the Coronation.

    The Coronation was a theme most usually represented in a horizontal format, yet perhaps this extensive thematic content would have offered more scope for drama and innovation when it was to be set in a tall, arched format. In fact, when Titian received the commission to construct this work, it was the largest altarpiece that had ever been seen in Venice. In the same way, Pesaro demonstrates an unorthodox blending of styles: the altarpiece painting and the votive portrait style. He transforms the traditional composition of the sacra conversazione from one of centrality to asymmetry.

    Rona Goffen supports this notion, claiming there was “no real precedent in earlier altar paintings for this asymmetrical scheme”. The shift in the Madonna and Child’s positioning has iconographic ramifications, as a central position reflects their supreme role in the relationship with the saints and patrons. They still dominate the Pesaro, their elevation conveys importance, and their split attention (Madonna looking to the left, and the Child to the right) is the key to uniting the two groups. Titian draws on characteristics of the popular votive picture (paintings depicting a patron venerating a saint in a more intimate association) for example, Titian’s Bishop Jacopo Pesaro Presented to St. Peter by Pope Alexander VI, which includes profile perspectives of subjects, asymmetry, and inclusion of things that represent the patron.

    The advent of x-ray technology has shown the extent to which Titian refined and reconstructed stylistic elements of the Pesaro which were originally more Bellinesque in concept. The discovery of underlying pentimenti supports this claim and reveals at least two changes of plan: the first resembles a Bellini work with a vaulted loggia-like arrangement. The second experimented with a curtain slung across and a Corinthian capital before the final two colossal columns were executed. Obviously, he maintained an awareness of his teachers and a connection with the familiar, yet he presents a notable departure from the Venetian tradition of the Quattrocento, in the disjuncture, he establishes between the realm of the church and inside the painting.

    Titian has successfully reinterpreted the relationship between the image and the worshipper, denying access to the observer, in contrast to Bellini’s devotional portraits, where the viewer was able to connect with the humanity of the Virgin Mary by her gaze out of the painting.

    Iconographic developments in the Assunta and Pesaro altarpieces have been extensively studied. Much has been written about the role of the columns in the background of the Pesaro altarpiece. David Rosand cites historical texts which interpret the columns to be architectural symbols of Mary, “the heavenly ladder by which God descends to Earth, so that through her, those men who merit it ascend to heaven.” If we agree with this summation of Mary as the stairway to heaven, then these columns can be seen as iconography rising up to heaven. This appears plausible since there doesn’t seem to be any indication of a natural termination to these columns. Alternatively, the columns could be a direct illustration of the text of Ecclesiasticus 24:7, “and my throne is a cloudy pillar.”

    This has a special relevance since other passages from Ecclesiasticus 24 have been linked by art historians to the Immaculate Conception, which is the theme of this altarpiece. The issue of the Immaculate Conception, the idea that Mary was exempt from original sin at the moment of her conception, was the cause for much antagonism between the Franciscans and the Dominicans, who preferred to believe that like St. John the Baptist, Mary hadn’t been conceived without sin but sanctified in the womb.

    Thus, not only are the columns significant iconography within the altarpiece but also relate to themes that promote Franciscan theology. Conversely, Humfrey dismisses any iconographic significance that these columns might contribute. “Their purpose is primarily pictorial: to give greater structural coherence. . . and to endow the scene with an aura of grandeur.” This alternative appears to supplement the X-ray evidence that Titian experimented with a variety of architectural solutions to create a setting that would achieve architectural as well as theological decorum.

    Like many devotional scenes that depict the Madonna and Child, there are many references to Christ’s destined crucifixion. It should be noted that Franciscan theory concentrates on the Passion, which can be read here as evidence of patrons’ concerns being inextricably linked with the subject matter of these works. Mary’s gesture towards his raised foot alludes to his stigmata and the crucifixion. Titian follows the popular depiction of St. Francis (patron saint of the Franciscan order); his open hand alludes to his stigmata, yet is also a tool to allow the eye to travel around the composition.

    St. Francis’ position makes him an intercessor between the Pesaro family and Christ. These allusions to the Passion become explicit in the depiction of the two putti in the clouds, who support a large wooden cross. The extent of the Pesaro’s iconographic significance can be challenged with the knowledge of the particular troubles Titian had to overcome regarding the placement of the work. The viewer first encounters the altarpiece from an angle, approaching the high altar.

    Hence, the composition must accommodate not only this view, but a full-frontal perspective. It seems that these conditions would have challenged Titian’s creativity, and the question of what stands due to necessity and what stands as iconography in this work makes analysis a complicated issue. With the Assunta, Goffen suggests that the stylistic feature of circular forms carries iconographic relevance. While they unify the composition within the painting, the curved architecture of the choir screen and the apse refer metaphorically to God, “circles being His geometric equivalent.” The golden tones prevalent in the work allow for a similar reading; golden light represents His divine illumination. The light becomes more intense and golden as we cross the boundary between the mundane and the sacred realms, reaching its full density when it reaches God.

    This golden light and illumination embodies Mary’s triumph over sin and death. The extent to which the role of patronage inhibited artistic innovation is evident. We have an inhibited ability to interpret works as reflections of the artist’s innovation and artistic development since they were largely contrived according to the demands of the patrons. In Titian’s Pesaro, Jacopo Pesaro’s demands were well documented. The terms of Titian’s commission stipulated that he include full-length kneeling portraits of Jacopo, his brothers, and nephew.

    In meeting these requirements, this could perhaps account for Titian’s unusual composition, and if true, it negates the interpretation of significant stylistic innovation. It appears Pesaro wanted numerous images represented in his altarpiece, supported by Ettlinger who studied the iconography of the columns: “Pesaro believed that a successful integration of all elements could be achieved.” Alongside the depiction of the Immaculate Conception (and his veneration of it), the inclusion of his family, and emblems which celebrated his illustrious military career were involved. The presence of so much diverse symbolism complicates an interpretation of the artwork’s iconography, which has been demonstrated in the plethora of scholars’ explanations in regard to the columns in the background of the Pesaro altarpiece.

    As a Mendicant friar, Fra Germano Casale could not own property, although he is commemorated as the “patron” of the Assunta. The date of unveiling and his name is inscribed on the frame, which sufficiently serves as documentation of the patronage and commission. Even if Germano relied on bequests to the Frari to fund the work, his vested interests are apparent when we read of his constant harassing of Titian while it was being painted. It reinforces the notion raised with the Pesaro, that the presence of the patrons places an influence on the outcome of the painting, so much so that it enables interpretations based on the political and social interests of the patrons. It is the many possible readings of these works, not only from a stylistic and iconographic point of view, that make the Assunta and Pesaro such enigmatic and monumental works. In capturing the ideals and beliefs of their time while exhibiting such progressive artistic features, these paintings hold great importance for the development of painting in Venice.


    1. Anderson, J. “The Genius of Venice 1500-1600,” in Art International, vol. 27, April/June 1984, pp. 15-22.
    2. Ettlinger, H. “The Iconography of the Columns in Titian’s Pesaro Altarpiece,” in Art Bulletin, vol. 61, 1979, pp. 59-67.
    3. Goffen, R. Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice: Bellini, Titian and the Franciscans, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1996.
    4. Humfrey, P. The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1993.
    5. Licht, F. “Titian: The Majestic Voice of All Venice,” in Art International, no. 11, Summer 1990, pp. 90-93.
    6. Ricketts, C. Titian, Methuen & Co. Ltd, London, 1910.
    7. Rosand, D. Painting in Cinquecento Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1982.
    8. Rosenthal, M. “In my view… Titian’s reputation: the limitations of history,” in Apollo, Dec. 1993, pp. 395-8.
    9. Tietze, H. Titian: The Paintings and Drawings, The Phaidon Press Ltd, London, 1950.

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