This magnificent and imposing vision of the Virgin Mary’s body and soul being taken to heaven was the central panel of a large polyptych (a multi-panelled altarpiece). It was made for the monastery of Sant'Agostino in Asciano, in the countryside near the Tuscan town of Siena.
The Virgin is shown rising in majesty, high above the hills, trees and river of the landscape, her empty tomb below her. Saint Thomas strains to catch a pink ribbon – this is the Virgin’s belt, or girdle, which, according to legend, the Virgin dropped for him. Thomas had also touched Christ’s wounded side after the Resurrection. In both instances, Thomas served to prove the truth of the bodily resurrection.
The city of Siena was dedicated to the protection of the Virgin Mary, and many glorious images of her could be found there. By commissioning an image like this, Asciano and other surrounding towns were showing their own devotion while emulating Siena.
This glorious celebration of the Virgin Mary was discovered in the nineteenth century in a wood store in the Tuscan town of Asciano, just outside Siena. The store belonged to a monastery of Augustinian monks. The painting was most probably originally made for choir of the monastery’s church, Sant‘Agostino.
The bulky figure of the Virgin dominates the scene. Placed centrally in an almost symmetrical pose, she is considerably larger than the angels and saints surrounding her. Her tomb lies open and empty as she ascends into heaven where Christ, hovering above, awaits her, along with saints and Old Testament figures. She wears a white damask cloak that opens to reveal her womb and belly, framed by her hands held together in prayer; this highlights her role as the mother of Christ. As she rises, her belt, or girdle, has loosened and is falling to earth. According to legend, Saint Thomas caught it. Here he is shown, fingers straining, grappling to reach it.
The Virgin rests upon a throne of Seraphim and Cherubim – the red and blue angelic beings with multiple wings. Around her, angels, their hair wreathed with flowers, play musical instruments. The four at the base of the throne have delicately curved soles that match the arch of their backs – their energetic poses make it seem as though they are propelling themselves through the air. Their arched backs create a graceful, symmetrical frame for the Virgin, and the folds of their draperies are highlighted with white paint, as through they are reflecting light emanated by her.
Scenes showing the Virgin’s assumption provided artists with the opportunity to paint vast landscapes with tiny trees and buildings, a bird’s eye view that enhances the sense of the Virgin’s distance from the earth. For example, it is a technique also used by Matteo di Giovanni’s Florentine contemporary, Franceso Botticini, in his version of the image. The walled hillside town to the left of the landscape may represent Asciano with its two churches, Sant’ Agostino and Sant' Agata; the river winding through the expansive valley could be the Ombrone, which runs through a nearby plain.
The panel formed the centre of a multi-panelled altarpiece (a polyptych). There were probably panels on either side, probably showing Saint Augustine and Saint Michael. Panels above probably showed the Archangel Gabriel on one side and the Virgin Mary on the other – so depicting the annunciation of Christ’s birth. It is likely that there were also supporting pilaster panels decorated with saints, as well as a predella, perhaps showing scenes from the life of Saint Augustine.
Images of Mary’s assumption were important in Siena, a city that was devoted to the Virgin Mary ever since its citizens, according to legend, had won a battle against the Florentines after dedicating Siena to her protection. The Feast of the Assumption on 15 August was a key celebration in many Sienese churches. The commission of a high altarpiece with such a large and impressive image of the Virgin was a way for towns in the region, like Asciano, to express their allegiance to their capital city.
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