Demand for Titian paintings soared after Titian (ca. 1488-1576) revealed his masterful Assumption of the Virgin in 1518.

Designed for the basilica of Venice’s Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, its rich hues and monumental scale — a colossal 22′ 8″ tall — had rarely been see in Italian painting.

But it’s not merely the scale that was ground-breaking: these Titian figures are charged with life and drama, creating what many consider the most renowned Assumption in art history.

Titian.  Assumption of the Virgin, ca. 1516-1518.  Oil on panel, 22′ 8″ by 11″ 10″.  Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.  

Titian divided this massive panel into three sections:

1. the earthly at the bottom;

2. the heavenly at the top with God hovering over all; and

3. the middle in which the Virgin looks upward.

Look how the two red-robed apostles at the bottom form the base of a triangle pointing toward the Virgin, drawing the viewer’s eye toward the focal point, the Virgin Mary.

None less than the renowned sculptor Antonio Canova claimed that Assumption of the Virgin was the most beautiful painting in the world.

After Assumption was revealed in 1518, demand for Titian portraits and paintings became unsatiable.

Among the most famous of these Titian paintings is of Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), one of the most influential Renaissance art patrons.

Left. Titian.  Isabella d’Este, 1534-36.  Oil on canvas, 3′ 4 1/8″ by 2′ 1 3/16″.  Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

After her marriage to Francesco Gonzaga, marquis of Mantua, Isabella began collecting ceramics, paintings, cameos, glassware, classical texts, musical instruments and manuscripts, and sculpture.

Perhaps aware of her pending legacy as a Renaissance art patron, Isabella d’Este commissioned portraits from prominent Renaissance painters including Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea Mantegna, and Titian.

Although Isabella d’Este was 60 years old when she commissioned her portrait, she insisted that Titian portray her in her 20s.

Titian complied, emphasizing her face and hands by the intricacy of her dress’ sleeves and the unseen light on the left.  Her dress melts into the background and, as the patron demanded, she is captured as a young (and highly confident) young woman.

Titian likely wished this d’Este portrait was the last in which he was to reverse the aging process… but it wasn’t.

After his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (1500-1588) appointed Titian the Court Painter and Count Palatine and Knight of the Golden Spur, unheard of honors for a painter.

Charles V was an avid Catholic devoted to maintaining the status and prominence of the Catholic Church. He asked Titian for a portrait of the defeated Protestant League at the Battle of Muhlberg in 1547 (a victory which ultimately failed to arrest Protestant influence).

Titian complied.

Around his neck, Charles wears the Order of the Golden Fleece, an order of 24 knights who pledged to join Charles in preserving Catholicism.  He is shown wearing the actual armor and riding the same horse he employed in the battle. Portraying Charles seated on a horse was novel, but the portrait is of a fictious Charles V.

Above right. Titian.  Emperor Charles V at Muhlberg, 1548.  Oil on canvas, 131″ by 110″.  Prado, Madrid. 

At the time of Titian’s painting, Charles, at age 57, had abdicated and was residing on his Spanish estate. He was riddled with gout, a result of poor habits like drinking ice-cold beer before breakfast, and, according to contemporaries, and of his inordinate fondness for eel pie, olives, spicy Spanish sausages and oysters.

Once again, Titian practiced portraiture based more on idealism than realism.  But his greater genius, in my mind, was in capturing psychological states, grandly exemplified in his Pope Paul III and his Grandsons.

Pope Paul III, who confronted challenges to the Church’s dominance through the Reformation, was dedicated to

Titian.  Pope Paul III and his Grandsons, 1546.  Oil on canvas, 6’10” by 5’8″.  Museo e Gallerie Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.

maintaining the Church’s authority for himself, his family, and his nephews (called grandsons).  Here, Titian captures the withered Pope’s enduring authority and desire to promote his grandsons’ careers while concurrently leaving no doubt about the grandsons’ obsequious devotion to him.

Some critics complained that the sketchy brushwork indicates Titian didn’t finish this portrait, but I’d disagree – denser brushstrokes would be redundant in this psychological portrait.

Do you agree that Titian shows these psychological states so palpably? And can any Catholics shed light on using “nephew” and “grandson” interchangeably? Let us know!

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