Paintings of the coronation of the Virgin Mary typically show her being crowned by Christ and God the Father, often accompanied by the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove. This work, however, mixes elements of the coronation with those of Mary’s assumption (when angels carried her body and soul to heaven three days after her death). Attended by angels, the Virgin sits on a throne of clouds. Winged putti carry the crown, perhaps preparing to bestow the title Regina angelorum (‘Queen of the angels’) upon her.
This composition is a development of an earlier Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin of similar dimensions, painted by Guido Reni in about 1602–3 (Museo del Prado, Madrid). That painting is on panel, whereas the National Gallery’s small-scale scene is on copper. Reni began to paint on copper in the early 1590s and was considered especially successful at it – its smooth, hard surface allowed the artist to paint in minutely fine detail.
The coronation of the Virgin is an episode related in biblical apocrypha, occurring upon her arrival in heaven following the Assumption (when angels carried her body and soul to heaven three days after her death). The subject gained popularity in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and depictions of it typically show the Virgin being crowned by Christ and God the Father, often accompanied by the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove.
In this work, however, elements of Mary’s assumption are mixed with those of her coronation. Attended by angels, the Virgin sits on a throne of clouds. Winged putti carry a crown, perhaps preparing to bestow the title Regina angelorum (‘Queen of the angels’) upon her. She is bathed in a radiant glow that emanates from the heavens, against a painted backdrop reminiscent of the early Renaissance tradition of gold-ground painting (as in The Coronation of the Virgin by Lorenzo Monaco).
This work is a development of an earlier Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin of similar dimensions, painted by Reni in about 1602–3 (Museo del Prado, Madrid). The earlier painting, in which the Virgin is depicted with her hands crossed over her chest, is very similar in its composition, though it lacks the vibrant colour palette and complex drapery arrangements of the National Gallery’s painting. The changes in the artist’s style may be the result of his time in Rome, where he travelled together with Francesco Albani to work for Annibale Carracci on the Palazzo Farnese frescoes in 1602. Reni included more varied poses and expressions for the angels in the National Gallery’s work – particularly those singing on the right, and the small putti in the foreground reading from a hymn sheet – giving this celestial scene an air of naturalism. His composition was copied in 1626 by Domenichino (Musée Bonnat, Bayonne), proof of the particular success Reni achieved in this version of the subject.
Reni’s Coronation of the Virgin is painted on a copper plate. The artist began to paint on copper in the early 1590s and was considered especially successful at it. The smooth, hard surface of the copper allowed Reni to paint in minutely fine detail, especially evident here in the wings of the angels: each feather has been brushed in carefully, and they are strikingly lifelike. The rich, bold colours have maintained their brilliance and saturation thanks to the non-absorbent copper support. Technical examination has revealed that Reni covered the copper with a layer of pewter (a silver-coloured coating), perhaps in an attempt to make his pigments appear even more luminous. Such a process was not unique to Reni, though certain artists favoured ’silvered' copper panels, including Reni’s contemporaries, Guercino and Domenichino, as well as Adam Elsheimer and Claude. The jewel-like radiance achieved by painting on copper proved particularly attractive to seventeenth-century collectors, and this support was frequently used for reduced-sized replicas and gifted by artists to important patrons.
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