Titian, The Presentation of the Virgin Mary

Circa 1534-38
Oil on canvas
Accademia Gallery, Venice

In the Golden Legend Mary is said to be just three years old when her parents offer her to the Temple. The altar was on a hill so there were fifteen steps, but "the virgin child was set down at the lowest step and mounted to the top without help from anyone, as if she were already fully grown up" (Ryan, II, 152). Titian expresses the sense of accomplishment in this narrative by contrasting the vast scope of the canvas with a strikingly diminutive Mary who nevertheless walks erect and confident up those steps, her right hand managing her skirt while her left returns the greeting of the High Priest in his imposing breastplate and "holy crown."

Another striking touch is that Mary is given a full-size aura rather than a halo.

According to Hood (131) the man whose back is turned to the viewer is St. Joachim, Mary's father. To his left are officers of the Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Carità, who commissioned this painting. To his right are his wife St. Anne, in white, and behind her a woman in red who directs the officers' attention to the scene on the steps. Their attendance is the major way in which the artist presents the city of Venice as a witness to the Virgin's entry into Temple service. Another is the depiction in the background of the Marmole in Cadore, a mountain in the Dolomites above the city:

The Marmole in Cadore, part of the Dolomites chain above Venice. Note the resemblance to the mountains in Titian's background. (Photo: this page at Wikimedia Commons.)

Behind the crowd is a building in the Palladian style sweeping Venice at the time, and an obelisk. The latter is another "Venetianizing" detail. It also appears in at least three other Venetian Presentation of the Virgins painted after this one: Tintoretto's in 1552-53, Vassilacchi's in 1600, and Lucadello's later in the 17th century. It is unknown in other periods and other cities. There were no actual obelisks in Venice, but Lupo explains that there was a vogue at the time for very tall chimneys shaped like obelisks and topped by orbs. Like the Palladian style in general, they were considered all'antica – that is, referencing the classical obelisks seen in Rome.

Left: A palazzo in Palladian style on Venice's Grand Canal still has the obelisk-shaped chimneys topped with orbs that were popular in the 16th century. Right: Obelisks, also topped by orbs, grace the four corners of the city's Guglie Bridge. An inscription on the base of this one says it was constructed in 1580 and restored in 1777.

As their name implies, the Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Carità was dedicated to works of charity. To emphasize their mission, Titian has cast the brightest light not on them, nor even on the young Virgin, but on the poor egg-seller sitting in the foreground with his basket.

In the 15th century an Office for the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin (November 21) was introduced into the liturgy at Venice. It was a translation of an elaborate Office used in Greek churches, but in the 1530s it was shortened and simplified on the orders of Pope Clement VII. Titian's painting from 1535-38 may therefore express a Venetian reaction against the downgrading of the feast. If so, it was ineffectual: In 1568 a papal commission suppressed the feast altogether.1

View this image in full resolution.
Read more about this painting in Rosand, "Titian's Light," 60-62, and Titian's Presentation of the Virgin.
Read more about images of Mary's Presentation in the Temple.

Photographed at the Gallery by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

1 Hood, 128-29. Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Breviary."