Faith through Art: Bellini celebrates coronation of the Blessed Virgin
By Norman Farmer
Following tradition since the sixth century, the church has honored and revered the bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven following her “dormition” or sleep. It is the ultimate miracle, experienced by Mary alone among mortals, in a life of miracles including the Annunciation and the birth of her Divine Son, who was her Son as Man and Divine because he was the Son of the Everlasting Father. How could she not be heaven’s queen?
By the 11th century, images such as the apse mosaic at Santa Maria in Trastevere were showing Mary, crowned and seated regally beside her Son. Yet, it was not until 1950 that Pope Pius XII in “Munificentissimus Deus” proclaimed the coronation of Our Lady an official dogma “that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” Only in 1954 did Pius XII approve as official doctrine of The Coronation of Our Lady.
Thus we honor the assumption of the Blessed Virgin (Aug. 15) and the coronation of Our Lady (Aug. 22) by reflecting upon one of the world’s most glorious poems of praise, the Coronation painted in 1474 by Giovanni Bellini for St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral at Pesaro, Italy.
Soaring 15 feet above the altar in the likeness of a great window open directly onto heaven, the painting is a visual symphony of praise for the humble virgin, who once more utters her modest and self-effacing “fiat” while her Son affirms her supremacy in heaven with its crowning glory. Hers of course is an eternal reign of supreme concord, of harmony which is visibly manifest in the demeanor and majestic nobility of the saints who stand witness to her investiture. The serene nobility of St. Paul, the deep wisdom of St. Peter turning the pages of the Gospel, the serene dignity of St. Jerome who views the coronation as the fulfillment ancient prophecy, and the mystical ecstasy of St. Francis meditating upon the cross: the image is a compendium of divine confirmation.
In the “predella” panels resting directly on the altar top are told the natural lives of all four saints who offered their lives to the ultimate glorification of the Mother of God: Paul (panel 2), thrown from his horse at his conversion; Peter (panel 3), crucified head-down; Jerome (panel 5), in the desert; and Francis (panel 6), receiving the stigmata on Mt. LaVerna. The Nativity in the center panel depicts Mary’s centrality to their ultimate glorification. Meantime, the octave of saints on the side panels add additional praise to the Mother of God through the lives they led (each on-line): (l.) St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Lawrence, St. Anthony of Padova, St. John the Baptist and (r.) The Blessed Michelma, San Bernardino of Siena, St. Ludovico of Tolosa, and St. Andrew. Finally, at the pinnacle of the altar appear Sts. Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus and Mary Magdalene.
Thus does Giovanni Bellini’s magnificent Pesaro altarpiece honor the Mother of Christ as the visible sign of a great truth that the human eye cannot see: “the infinite goodness that the persons of the Trinity constantly behold and mutually praise” (J. A. Hardon, SJ, “Glory,” Modern Catholic Dictionary).