There have been many more stories told about Mary outside the New Testament than within it. Some of these stories emerge from oral traditions, some from texts roughly contemporaneous with the Gospels, others originated hundreds of years later. Many of these stories, unmoored from scripture, move and change with the flow of time and place, acquiring new meanings as the cultural context alters, before occasionally becoming grounded as church doctrine. Throughout, art of all kinds, but especially the visual, has played a pivotal part in reflecting, interpreting and reinterpreting these stories.
In his book Mary in Western Art, Catholic priest and art historian Timothy Verdon uses the idea of a palimpsest as an analogy for how to consider and comprehend representations of Mary. Every aspect of Marian iconography reveals “stratifications of ideas, beliefs, and formal categories going back to remote and distinct historical periods that come to us reshaped by subsequent additions and interpenetrations.”
To unpack our contemporary understanding of Mary is thus to sift through two millennia of Western history and cultural schisms. An imposing task.
Beginning at the end, the death and Assumption of Mary makes a pertinent starting point. An early Christian apocryphal text describes how “the apostles laid the body [of Mary] in the tomb, filled with love and sweet sentiments as they wept and sang. Then, suddenly, a heavenly light enveloped them and they fell to earth, while the body was carried to heaven by angels.” Such mentions of Mary’s final “falling asleep”, the dormitio Virginis, and her subsequent apotheosis stretch back to origins in the 2nd century AD. But the Assumption only became a confirmed part of Catholic dogma in 1950, under Pope Pius XII.
The most celebrated artistic interpretation of Mary’s Assumption sits above the altar of the Frari in Venice, Italy. Painted by Titian between 1516 and 1518, the Assumption depicts Mary’s ascent into heaven, with the apostles watching from below, and God the Father at the top of the composition.
The painting played an important role in inspiring Colm Tóibín to write The Testament of Mary. Visiting Venice, he went to the Frari repeatedly, sitting for as long as he could in front of Titian’s painting. As he described it, “I bought postcards of the painting and, once, a larger poster. Every time I left Venice, I always felt guilty that I had not seen enough, or taken enough in, so the time spent in front of the Titian was a way of trying to concentrate more than usual, trying to pull something from the experience of looking that I could keep and remember.
“The painting is almost seven metres high, it hangs behind the altar of the church. There are two lovely divisions in the composition. The first division is the pale sky between the shocked mortals who stand on the ground and the cloud above them, lifted by angels, which bears the mother of God in her wonderful red robe, with a blue robe falling away. The second division is the golden sky above Mary, to which she soars with her arms outstretched towards God who is above. This is the sky of heaven.
“There is something so pure about the composition that it manages to stretch powerfully beyond the story that Mary, as the mother of God, on her death could not be allowed to decompose in the earth, but was assumed body and soul into heaven. And yet the painting remains rooted also in the sheer glorious shock of such an event, were it to have taken place.”
The Titian formed one half of an artistic dialogue that Tóibín found compelling. Across town, at Venice’s Scuola Grande di San Rocco, the other half awaited him.
In Tintoretto’s painting of the crucifixion at San Rocco, Mary, positioned at the bottom of the frame beneath the cross, is clothed in a manner that echoes the Titian. But there the similarities end. As Tóibín puts it, Tintoretto’s painting “is rooted in the real world, rather than the world of dreams where Titian’s painting lives. The painting of the crucifixion here is more than 12 metres wide. Its size means that the idea of transcendental space soaring towards the heavens above is replaced with the vast, long, busy world around. Tintoretto shows that while Jesus hung on a cross until he died, many other things happened too. If the sound of the Titian is of angels’ unearthly voices, this painting by Tintoretto is filled with the brutal noise of the world.”
Mary’s presence at the crucifixion is recounted in John’s Gospel, which asserts that “near the cross of Jesus stood his mother” and, further, that “seeing his mother and the disciple he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, this is your son.’ Then to the disciple he said, ‘This is your mother.’ And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home.” (John 19: 26–27) This passage informs the most common configuration of the crucifixion scene as represented in art – John and Mary standing beneath Jesus on the cross. And it is also the basis for the belief that Mary lived out her days in Ephesus, Turkey, where John may have written his gospel – a point not lost on Tóibín in the writing of his play.
But, as Tóibín points out, Tintoretto’s depiction does not constrain itself to the classical trinity of Jesus, Mary and John. And it is more earthly than the Titian. It gave Tóibín the kernel of a narrative. As he recounts: “I think the gap between these two paintings made me wonder about how the imploring, powerless figure of Mary at the foot of the cross as her son was crucified could have become, in Catholic doctrine and Italian painting, the queen of heaven. The more time I spent looking at paintings in Venice the more I came to feel that the story of her transformation fulfilled a pictorial need, or a storyteller’s need, as much as it did anything else.”
Continue reading this article in our printed program for The Testament of Mary…
The program also features:
- notes from Artistic Director Kip Williams and Resident Director Imara Savage
- a piece by playwright Colm Tóibín on the origins of the play
- an essay by historian Professor Bettany Hughes
- biographies and photos of the cast and crew
- photos from the rehearsal room, and more!
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The Testament of Mary, 13 Jan – 25 Feb 2017, Wharf 1 Theatre
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