The medieval universe and a painting by Botticini

I am looking at paintings titled ‘The Assumption of the Virgin’, they’re all paintings from the Renaissance or older. The most compelling ones, to me, are the ones with incredible rendering of dark and light. It appears that light is really important for creating atmosphere in a painting. There’s something tangible, something present, something palpable about effective light in a painting.

I have been fascinated by this painting for sometime now:

Francesco Botticini, about 1446 – 1497 The Assumption of the Virgin probably about 1475-6 Tempera on wood, 228.6 x 377.2 cm Bought, 1882 NG1126

I used to look at it every time I visited the National Gallery, although it is no longer on display rip. The composition of the piece really fascinates me; the vast size of the opening to heaven that dwarfs the landscape on Earth. The rings of blue are IMMENSE. They fade out into this sky blue which permeates the length of canvas, and seems to bounce off the complementary earthy colours of the landscape.

The painting is large, and when you stand before it, the dome shape dwarfs you. It makes you sit down in front of it and stare up at the holy scene above.

It looks kind of as if the sky has a hole cut in it. The layers of blue are the layers underneath the sky blue sky one can see on a clear day. The painter is suggesting that if you were to peal back the layers of blue, like defined layers of the atmosphere, they would reveal heaven on the other side. This analogy fits with the medieval universe model, which depicted Earth at the centre of something like an onion, with layers of space between Earth and the furthest out layer which was heaven.

It amazes me that this image may have reflected the artists beliefs about the world when Botticini painted it. I was told recently by someone that they think artists takes things that are difficult or complex or large, and translates them into objects (or events), which allow for viewers to have discussions and gain understanding. I thought this was so insightful! Re-reading a passage from Gerhard Richter: panorama (2011), I realised Gerhard Richter thought the same thing:

NS: But painting is not about efficiency.

GR: Actually it is, in the sense that it allows us to find a form for a complicated idea, that’s to say, to make something chaotic communicable, it is efficient.


By doing this, the artist takes something unconfined, something utterly complex and seemingly never-ending, overwhelming perhaps, and translate it into an object or event which is contained, with edges, which may attempt to reveal or describe the issue, or comment on it etc in a palpable format. Viewers (and the artist) can therefore use artworks as a way of grasping an issue, as a promp/ focus for discussion, to see the issue/topic/subject in a new light.

In ‘The Assumption of the Virgin’ it seems that Botticini was doing just this. He was taking the complex, massive, perhaps overwhelming idea and belief that the Earth was at the centre of this great onion structure, with heaven on the outside and Earth at the centre, and translated it into this painting. The simple imagery and the familiar story (of Mary going up to heaven) makes this massive belief structure into something pleasing to the eye, something tangible, something to sit in front of and contemplate, something physical to process, as a method for understanding an intangible/ abstract/ aerial idea.

I want to respond to this work. I’ll start with some ink drawings.


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