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Sarah Szabo

Visions of Paradise:

The Coronation of the Virgin in Venice

September, 2013



            The subject in Christian art of the  “Coronation of the Virgin” represents the final episode in the life of Mary (the Virgin), when she is crowned as the queen of heaven, the place  of eternal bliss where the redeemed live among god, angels, and saints. She is depicted in heaven, on a throne either seated or kneeling besides christ, while he places the crown on her head. Along with other events from Mary's life, the event of the coronation was not written in the new testament, however, it was deduced through allegorical interpretations of scriptures, including, from the vulgate manuscript of the 5th century, “Come, my bride, from Lebanon... though shalt be crowned' (Sg 4 : 8)[1]. The “Coronation of the Virgin” became a particularly popular devotional subject  in the 13th century, when the cult of Mary was at its peak.[2] It remained a popular subject until the 15-16th century, often to be replaced by other events in Mary's life. Examples of the Coronation can be seen through the 18th century, this paper will discuss the period in which it was most popular, focused on the art of Venice, where the subject had particular significance. Mary had become associated with and symbolic of the city herself. This was especially after the large fresco, “Paradise,” a Coronation of the Virgin, was painted by Guariento di Arpo in the great council hall of the Doges Palace around 1365. Also, Venice had never been conquered, so it called itself the “virgin city.” [3] The subject, as an event taking place in heaven in the presence of god, also happened to lend itself very well to the aesthetic of Venetian art between the Gothic through Renaissance periods. Although this iconographical subject continued, this  was a time of drastic change, and so, as a result, the manner in which this subject was represented evolved significantly. Nevertheless, certain aspects, unique to the Venetian aesthetic, particularly that of light, color, and sensuality, can be felt throughout.

            In order to understand this transition,  the context in which the iconography existed must be explored. It is essential to understand the relationship between its function, the people making it, and the people viewing within the time period. The veneration of Mary as the mother of christ goes back to the late 4th century, following the declaration of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire in 380. Mary was declared as the divine mother at the council of Ephesus, authorizing the cult of Mary.[4] However, the veneration of Mary became much more present during the medieval period. During this time, various groups of people reacted against the ways of the medieval church. The system was based in feudalism, and  life in the monasteries had become one of “ease and luxury.” Long held beliefs were being questioned, classical writing, such as that of Aristotle were rediscovered, mainly through the Arabic in Spain and Sicily, and universities, “independent centers of thought” emerged. Learning was no longer restricted to the people of the monasteries and people began to question the ways of the church. Independent sects that wished to return to the roots of their faith formed. Eventually, the Mendicant orders, including the Franciscans, Dominicans, Servites, Carmelites, and the Augustinians. Intending spiritual revival, the Franciscans vowed poverty and to bring the gospel back to ordinary people. The Dominicans were most concerned with fighting the sects, which they considered be committing heresy in various ways, by preaching to and educating the people. [5]The servites, the Servants of Mary, placed particularly special emphasis on devotion to Mary.[6]  There was also the growth of commerce, which led to a wealthy merchant class as well as a middle class of smaller traders independent of the feudal system. During the 13th century, these merchants formed guilds of specific trades, which led to the growth of financial and political power independent of the church. [7]

            One can gather that the symbol of Mary was appealing to people in this time because, in a sense, it assisted in strengthening the idea of bringing salvation back to the individual. Because she was also human, she represented a prime source of hope for people to also live eternally in paradise after death.[8]As Christ was the redeemer of Man, Mary, by her virginity, came to be viewed as the redeemer of woman, the second eve, as well as the queen of heaven. As the queen of heaven, she served as an “intercessor” and protector for people on earth. [9] Her previously formal and hieratic image became more human and maternal, bringing a more direct and personal relationship to the viewer.[10] This higher emphasis on the individual, which became increasingly significant through the Renaissance, can be attributed to the social, economic, and religious reformations of the time.

            The subject of “Coronation of the Virgin” was used an an image meant to inspire worship to Mary as the divine mother. Although not always, it was often the subject of side altarpiece, but sometimes it was the subject of the main altar. The altarpiece functioned as a visual compliment to the altar. In The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice, Peter Humfery refers to “Coronation of the Virgin” altarpieces as “narrative altarpieces,” along with the Annunciation, the Baptism, and other scriptural events. Even though the event does not portray a written historical episode, it is not the same is a purely iconic altarpiece, which is more purely static and a symbol, instead of depicting an event.[11] I conclude that this was a narrative of particular symbolic appeal, however, because it represented the moment of Mary's arrival in heaven, serving as a kind of proof, a strong visualization for the possibility of personal salvation.

            This was the context in which the gothic style evolved in Italy. The gothic style was a transition from the Romanesque. Gothic art, both in architecture and imagery, can be described as having a complete contrast to the Romanesque in its lighter feeling and attention to detail. The figures which were stylized, often thin and elongated, lacking the sense of weight. The gothic style of Venice, however, was unique from the rest of Europe, and even from that of Florence, because of its particular strong Byzantine and Islamic influence. Venice held onto the its Byzantine traditions much longer than Florence, which more quickly abandoned the gothic style in the aim of greater naturalism, revisiting the art of the classical past. Venice had much stronger ties with the world of Byzantium because it was geographically closer to Constantinople. There was also a long history of trade between Venice and Constantinople, and therefor many objects of Byzantine art came to Venice. This was especially after it was raided by the crusaders in 1204. Many objects were stolen and used to decorate Venetian architecture. Byzantine art was one of richness and decoration, making use of gold and various precious stones. The main medium to create images was the mosaic, which was composed of tesserae, all at slightly varied angles to create a greater sense of light. The intention was to create a unearthly light, which was accomplished through the use of color in space.[12] The direct influence of this can be seen inside of the Basilica of San Marco, which is covered in gold tesserae, with symbolic and narrative imagery throughout. The golden light that radiates throughout interior creates a strong sense of a heavenly space, which most certainly was of influence to the Venetian school of painting that developed during the gothic period. 

            Paolo Veneziano is generally recognized as the founder of the Venetian school. He popularized the composite altarpiece in Venice, which is a polyptych of various decoratively painted scenes within an elaborately carved and guided frame. This was a very significant transition because the figures were brought from the high apse of the church, a position of “hieratic isolation,” down to the spectator, allowing the viewer to have a more personal relationship with the image, a reaction to the social changes of the time.[13] Paolo's “Coronation of the Virgin, with Scenes from the Life of Christ” is one such polyptych altarpiece (Fig. 1 and 2). Though it is now in the Accademia, it is believed to have been originally commissioned as an altarpiece for the church of S. Chiara, dated 1350. The entire frame is painted in gold, carved with extravagant detail. The “Coronation of the Virgin” is placed in the center panel with columns carved on either side, leading to a pointed trefoil arch above. To the right and left are two rows of smaller scenes depicting the life of christ within rounded trefoil arches. Above them are scenes from the lives of Franciscan saints, with the four evangelists between them, and a pentecost on the top right. These are topped with tall triangular shapes, with further decorative carvings extending from them. The design of the frame reflects that of gothic architecture. The panels are painted in tempera with very saturated blues and reds on gold backgrounds. In the center panel sits Mary next to Jesus on a throne with a circular back and a drapery being held up by angels. There are more angels playing musical instruments above, and one on either side of the throne below. Mary crosses her hands on her chest, looking at the viewer, while Jesus is turned towards Mary, with his hand placed on a jeweled crown atop her head. He also has a crown. Jesus' mantle and robe, the drapery behind them, the pillows they are seated on, and the top of the throne are all patterned in gold, creating a extravagant mesh of decoration which flattens the forms against the surface. They do not change based on the fold of the fabric, other than to be cropped. Colors are confined to their shapes and there is not a clear source of light. Of note is the unchanging iconographical feature of Mary's red robe and blue mantle. Although there are shadows in the throne and in the drapery of the angels, the light source seems to be more omnipresent, represented through the rich gold, blues, and reds. The influence of the Byzantine is highly apparent in it's decorative richness of color and detail, supernatural light, and in his treatment of the figures. The poses and expressions of both Mary and Jesus convey a strong sense of stillness. Although Mary is looking towards the viewer, both she and Jesus look very neutral and serious. Other characteristics that reflect that of the Byzantine are their small and delicate features, olive toned skin, feet that appear to hover above the ground, and the overall flattening of their forms.[14]

            In the latter part of the century, Venetian artists, including Paolo Veneziano, increasingly incorporated elements of gothic influence. This can partially be attributed to the widening of Venice's empire on the mainland, where Gothic style was being practiced. This led to a greater emphasis on the intimidate devotion to Mary. This can be seen in Catarino's “Coronation of the Virgin,” dated from 1375, also at the Accademia in Venice (Fig. 3). Though of unknown origin, it was most likely the center of a polyptych. This artist was working in the style of Paolo Veneziano, however, influence from the gothic, most likely including the later works of Paolo, as well as those of Lorenzo Veneziano, another important artist working in Venice, with works dated between 1356 to 1372 in a gothic style.  It is unknown if this artist had directly observed Veneziano's Coronation, or if it happens to be similar out of popularization.[15] It seems, though, due to the striking similarities, highly likely that he did. Although the compositional format is very similar to that of Paolo's Coronation, the decorative patterns are much less elaborate, the use of gold more sparing, and the bodies are rendered more dimensionally. The pattern still does not follow the drapery's form, however it is much more gently rendered, giving it the feeling of being part of the fabric and its color, instead of primary to it. The green, blue, and red of the painting are less rich, and more bright, also more characteristic of the gothic style. The circularly shaped throne has been replaced by one with a squarish format, referencing a gothic style throne of the time period. The circular shape is instead behind the throne, with flattened sides, creating an arch shape. It has gold stars on a blue background as Veneziano's Coronation did, but they are further apart, rendered more softly, and do not have intense gold rays going up to them. Mary pleasantly smiles at the viewer, holding her mantle with her left hand, and slightly raising her right. It still appears crossed, as seen before, but the slight change in gesture gives a sense of welcome into the image. Christ's hand on Mary's halo is also different. His fingers are slightly bend, which looks more relaxed and more human, as if he is actually holding the crown. His face also has a greater sense of humanity because his brow is furrowed and his eyebrows are raised. The angels continue to hold musical instruments, but they are fewer in number and more intimate and personalized in their expressions. These subtle changes represent the significant cultural shifts during the gothic period.

            Guariento di Arpo's fresco, “Paradise,” was painted sometime between 1365 and 1368 on the wall of the grand hall in the Doges Palace (Fig. 4). It is important to note that fresco painting was not a trade native to Venice, and Guariento was asked to come from Padua to paint it. The fresco, along with rest of the decorative program of the Doges palace were damaged in a fire. The painting was replaced with Tintoretto's “Paradise.”, depicting the same theme. Guariento's fresco was rediscovered when Tintoretto's painting was removed in 1903. A section of the remains can now be seen in a nearby room. Guariento's fresco was of great importance for a long time, however, because of its placement in the hall of the grand council, the most important location in Venice—it was the center of the government and symbolic of the power of Venice. This subject of the Coronation was chosen to honor Mary as Venice's patron saint, which, in doing so, emphasized  the power of Venice. From the remnant of the fresco, one can see that Guariento's heaven depicts a court such as on earth, certainly of no accident, paralleling the Grand Council of Venice with that of heaven.[16]Heaven was believed to be hierarchically arranged, made up nine ranks of angels, the highest being the closest to god, and each order having different tasks.

            In 1438, Jacobo del Fiore created a panel, painted in tempera on wood, for the Council Hall of Ceneda, a Friulian dependency of Venice, based on the composition of Guariento's fresco (Fig 5). Perhaps that it would also be in a council hall inspired this. Mary and Jesus are formally placed on a multi tiered, very elaborate, gothic throne, with a heavenly liturgy of saints and angels. There is greater attention to line and a use of bright greens, reds, pinks, and blues. The composition, figures, and architecture are particularly rigid and stiff, but the expressions of Mary and Christ are gentle. The use of pure bright greens, blues, pinks, yellow ochres, and reds with the careful attention to line are characteristic of both the gothic style. An interesting change is that the scene, although  architectural, appears to take  place in a natural setting. The sky is blue and there is grass below the throne.. Other notable changes since the trecento are the sparing use of gold, and that the polyptych has been merged into a single image.

             This addition of a heavenly court can be seen in other Coronations of the time period, such as the altarpiecesby Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d'Alemagna's, in San Pantalon, painted in 1444 (Fig. 6), and very similar Coronation  by Michele Giambono's, painted  in 1448 (Fig. 7). The reason for this is because he was requested to copy Vivarini's (Fig. VI).  They are also iconographical different because both god and the holy spirit  are represented as taking part of the event, with god in the center with the holy spirit, represented by the dove, centered below his head. Both works have increased weight and dimensionality, as well as sensuality in the figures, particularly in that of the putti and the in the drapery of Mary and Christ's robes. They also both have  greater spacial depth and a feeling of warmth by having the chorus turn inwards, creating the illusion that a semicircular space behind the coronation, much like the shape of an altar. Vivarini's spacial illusion, however, looks like two cupped spaces within a semicircular space, while the rows of Giambono's figures directly connect with each other's shape, even when interrupted by the throne.  The illusion seems to be one of looking up, as the figures decrease in scale the higher the row. The putti are also smaller in scale when deeper into the picture plane, with the center putti as the largest. A further innovation is that he almost completely obscures the architecture in the rows above the base of the throne.Also, Mary and Jesus appear much older, and Jesus' touch on Mary's crown is a slight gesture with the tip of two fingers, while Mary's hands are put together, instead of crossed. The undulating architecture seems to play off the many directions in which people are looking. Giambono's innovations seem to create a harmonious and lively relationship between the people and the setting, creating an expressive sensuality that points towards the future of Venetian painting. 

            It was at this time that the Renaissance style that had been flourishing in Florence finally came to Venice, in painting, most notably through the work of Giovanni Bellini, who pioneered the techniques of oil painting, as well as bringing much greater realism to his scenes. The nearby city of Padua, which had come under the Venetian state in 1405, was primarily responsible for the cultural change that sparked the Venetian Renaissance.  There was a university, one of the first centers of humanism in Italy.  It was leading in the study of science and philosophy, corresponding with Florence in it's revival of ancient knowledge and continued conception of the man as an individual. With this came the idea that art should imitate nature, with greater emphasis on such skill than the worth of the materials. The artist became more of an individual as well, which allowed the artist to venture further from tradition to find visual solutions. There were also artists that visited from Florence, particularly of influence was Antonio Messina, who's visit influenced the progression of the oil painting techniques of Bellini. Bellini had been working in tempera for the first part of his life, but around the time of Messina's arrival, was  beginning to transition to oils. It is right before Messina's arrival that it is believed Bellini painted his “Coronation of the Virgin” altarpiece for a church in Pesaro. Although the Renaissance largely came Venice through due to the influence of Florence, the artists of the Venetian Renaissance created work that was distinctly their own, unique from that of Florence, or anything that had been made before.

            Bellini's “Coronation of the Virgin” is significant for many reasons, but, above all it was done in oil, which allowed for very different expressive possibilities than egg tempera. This was done in Bellini's earlier exploring stages of the medium, he has successfully achieved a depth of color one would not find in a tempera painting. The oil medium also lends itself better to unity of light and color.  Secondly, it was commissioned for a frame that would stand independent of the wall. Bellini uses the shape of the frame to construct the composition of the image. [17]This is the first time he mimics the architectural form of the frame inside the painting, an influential innovation that he carried into later works. In the middle of the throne in which Mary and Jesus sit, there is a window, which opens to a landscape, a very unique idea. Another unusual decision is to place the four evangelists on either side of the Coronation, as in a Sacra Conversazione. Behind the throne there is sky with groups of angles on either side. Above the scene is the holy spirit, creating a triangle, a shape typically used in the Renaissance art of Florence. He also employs perspective in the floor leading up to the throne, and in the throne itself. Perspective had been discovered by Florentine architect Fillipo Brunelleschi in the beginning of the century. The light is directional, defining the forms, and the figures have weight, almost to a sculptural degree. The fact that they turned at an angle which further adds to the illusion of their presence in space.  The architectural and spatial language as well as the dimensionality of the figures all reflect the artistic ideas of Renaissance Florence.[18] There is a possibility that Bellini saw the work of Piera della Francesca while in Urbino, which could have influenced his change in style.[19] The warm light, the opening of the throne to a pastoral medieval landscape, and the sensuality with which Mary closes her eyes and crosses her hands over her mantle seem to be very distinct from the light and mood found in Florence. One undeniable reason for this aesthetic towards light and color in Venice is the atmospheric quality of the lagoon within which Venice is located. It is difficult to imagine a painter not being influenced by Venice's majestic skies, variety of warm and cool light, and the ever changing reflection of it bouncing off the water throughout the city.

            Although painted almost 80 years later (1555), Paolo Veronese's “Coronation of the Version,” strongly reflects this Venetian aesthetic that can be felt in Bellini's earlier version. Veronese has used light in color as the primary source of form, in a way that very effectively makes one feel the quality of heavenly light. Veronese has also taken the lessons in perspective to accomplish foreshortening in the figures, providing the illusion of looking up at about a 45 degree angle. This is appropriate because this work was painted for the ceiling of the sacristy of San Sabastiano. This ceiling has an elaborate framework, this being the center panel. In a sense, this reflects back to the polyptych of Vivarini. The saints are painted on separate panels surrounding the central event. The use of reds, pinks, blues, and yellows, including the traditional colors of Mary's robe and mantle, also have not changed, however, the subtleties in modeling are incomparable in effect. The figures have come to life. The poses are completely natural, and the fabrics follow their forms, within the modeling of the direct light source of the holy spirit, forming the triangle of the trinity above Mary's head, where Jesus places the crown. The The goldenly lit scene of heaven is now represented in the clouds. Representing heaven as a place in the clouds was not a new idea, but the way in which Veronese composes the shapes, light, and color, to express emotion and concept accomplished a very compelling effect that was his own.

            Around 1580, there was a competition held between the leading artists of the time to replace the fresco of Guariento, destroyed in the fire of 1577.  Veronese, Bassano, Tintoretto, and Palma Giovanni all submitted large oil sketches. The concepts followed Dante's “Paradiso,” with the divinity at the center of a dome of heaven, surrounded by angels and saints on “banks of clouds,” placed according to heavenly ranking. Veronese and Bassano were asked to work together on the painting. Unfortunately, Veronese died in 1588,  before they were able to start. The colossal commission of 23x72 feet was passed to Tintoretto. He was more focused on completing his work in the the Scuola Son Rocco, however, andso  left much of the task to his son, Domenico, Palma Giovanni, and other members of his shop to complete the painting based on his sketch.[20] There is a directional, warm light that radiates throughout the hundreds of bodies, but, it is more tonally based than the style of Veronese, a typical noticeable distinction between their two styles. The composition is made up of clumps of people floating in concentric circles, radiating from the top center where Mary comes to meet her son. There is not an actual literal crown, but instead a circle of stars around Mary's head, and the dove of the holy spirit between her and Christ. The same palette of blue, red, pink, ochres, and golden yellow seen at the beginning of the Venetian school are used here, with the exception of gold, which is imitated through paint. The clumps and loose circular form within the people reference the courts of earlier Coronations, most importantly that of Guariento's fresco, which was partially responsible for the popularity of the subject in the first place. However, the space is no longer definable, and the nebulous clumps of people themselves have become the court stalls, and become the clouds. The representation of heaven still retains the power and authority of the fresco, but the epic proportions, composition, light, color, sensuality, and emotion throughout command an engaged emotional response, making heaven truly imaginable on earth.









Davidson, Clifford, “Of Saints and Angels,” in The Iconography of Heaven, edited by Clifford Davidson, 1-39. Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1994.


Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.


Giorgi, Rosa. The History of the Church in Art. Los Angeles: The Paul Getty Museum, 2008.


Giulio, Manieri Ella. Veronese: The Stories of Esther Revealed. Venice: Museo di Palazzo Grimani; Marsilio, 2011.


Hall, James. A History of Ideas and Images in Italian Art. New York: Harper and Row Publishers Inc., 1983.


Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects & Symbols in Art. New York: Harper and Row Publishers Inc., 1974.


Hills, Paul. The Light of Early Italian Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.


Humfrey, Peter. The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.


Humfrey, Peter. Painting in Renaissance Venice. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995.


Metford, JCJ. Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 1983.


Nepi Sciré, Giovanna. Treasures of Venetian Painting: the Gallerie dell'Accademia. New York: Vendome Press, 1991.


Pignatti, Terisio. The Golden Century of Venetian Painting. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art in association with George Braziller, 1979.


Sinding-Larsen, Staale. Iconography and Ritual: A Study of Analytical Perspectives. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget As, 1984.


Sinding-Larsen, Staale. Christ in the Council Hall: Studies in Religious Iconography of the Venetian Republic. Rome: L'erma di Bretschneider, 1974.


Steer, John. A Concise History of Venetian Painting. New York: Praeger Publishers, Inc. 1970.



[1]   JCJ Metford, Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend (London: Thames and Hudson, 1983), 73.

[2]   JCJ Metford, Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend (London: Thames and Hudson, 1983), 118, 73.

[3]   Manieri Ella Giulio, Veronese: The Stories of Esther Revealed (Venice: Museo di Palazzo Grimani; Marsilio, 2011), 22.

[4]   Rosa Giorgi, The History of the Church in Art, trans. Brian Phillips (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008), 202.

[5]   James Hall, A History of Ideas and Images in Italian Art (New York: Harper and Row Publishers Inc., 1983), 189-190.

[6]   Rosa Giorgi, The History of the Church in Art, trans. Brian Phillips (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008), 108.

[7]   James Hall, A History of Ideas and Images in Italian Art (New York: Harper and Row Publishers Inc., 1983), 190-191.

[8]   Clifford Davidson, The Iconography of Heaven (Michigan: The Medieval Institute Publications, 1994), 8.

[9]   James Hall, A History of Ideas and Images in Italian Art (New York: Harper and Row Publishers Inc., 1983), 180-181.

[10] James Hall, A History of Ideas and Images in Italian Art (New York: Harper and Row Publishers Inc., 1983), 221.

[11] Peter Humfrey, The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 13, 18.

[12] John Steer, A Concise History of Venetian Painting (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 11-12.

[13] John Steer, A Concise History of Venetian Painting (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 15.

[14] John Steer, A Concise History of Venetian Painting (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 17-18.

[15] Giovanna Nepi Sciré, Treasures of Venetian Painting: the Gallerie dell'Accademia (New York: Vendome Press, 1991), 36.

[16]         Peter Humfrey. Painting in Renaissance Venice (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), 21-22.

[17] Peter Humfrey, The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 193.

[18] John Steer, A Concise History of Venetian Painting (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 55-56.

[19] Peter Humfrey, The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 192.

[20]         Terisio Pignatti, The Golden Century of Venetian Painting (Los Angeles: Museum Associates of the Los Angeles Museum of Art, 1979), 108-110.

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