|The Coronation of the
Neither scripture nor Catholic dogma says anything about Mary being crowned upon her arrival in Heaven, yet this has been a popular theme in the art for more than eight centuries. It developed from the fervent language in early medieval accounts of Mary's bodily assumption into Heaven, in particular Gregory of Tours' Glory of the Martyrs (6th century) and a sermon incorrectly attributed to Saint Jerome. In the latter, Mary enters Heaven as a "glorious queen" and "celestial legions" lead her to her throne.
This celebration of Mary's queenly dignity led to an image type in which Mary and Christ sit enthroned side by side, usually wear matching crowns, and are flanked by two angels who represent those celestial legions. The earliest known sculpture of this type is the upper register of a tympanum in the Cathedral of Senlis (ca. 1170). The lower register depicts the Dormition and Assumption. This composition is repeated almost exactly in a tympanum at Chartres (1194-1260) and invites comparison with the apse mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Maria in Trastevere.
In a strict sense the Senlis and Chartres tympana should not be called Coronation images, because Mary is already wearing her crown. But a tympanum at Notre Dame de Paris (1163-1285) does depict an actual crowning within the same compositional type: An angel reaches down from above the Virgin to place the crown on her head. The same composition also appears in an ivory of the same period.
A 13th-century wall painting in Black Bourton, England, uses the pattern that will prevail in the ensuing centuries: As the two sit enthroned and flanked by angels, the Son lifts his right hand to crown his mother. This pattern was adopted for many Coronations in the 14th and 15th centuries (as at left), often with the flanking angels joined by veritable "celestial legions" of others.
The 13th century also saw the composition of the Golden Legend, whose extensive chapter on the Assumption of Mary and her glorious entry into Heaven quotes copiously from the pseudo-Jerome sermon and provides a wealth of details that will be used by artists in the ensuing years.
Another pattern has Mary seated between the Son and the Father, who together place the crown on her head while the Holy Spirit hovers just above (example). A Spanish relief from 1200 appears to include an antecedent of this type. In an unusual Spanish example from the 18th century, Mary is encircled by the three persons of the Trinity, one of whom (the Father?) has just placed the crown on her head.
The third pattern has Mary kneeling at left, sometimes with her arms crossed on her breast, before the seated Father, who places the crown on her head (example).
All three patterns give the artist an opportunity to populate Heaven with his own or his patron's choice of characters. Annibale Carracci, for example, took the opportunity to visualize Heaven as a crowded spherical theatre reminiscent of Dante's Paradiso.
There is also some flexibility in the associations that artists can draw through juxtaposition. Raphael puts the coronation above a scene of apostles standing around the empty coffin. The ivory mentioned above juxtaposes Mary's coronation with the Resurrection of the Body. And the Notre Dame tympanum sets it above a representation of the Ark of the Covenant.
Feast day: There is no separate feast for the Coronation. The Assumption is celebrated on August 15.
At left, The Coronation of the Virgin - Giovanni di Paolo
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Italian painting, 15th century
Golden Legend #119: html or pdf
Gregory of Tours, chapter from Glory of the Martyrs
(will be posted January 2006)