The art essay of the month

Coronation of the Virgin with the Trinity (c. 1400) by Master of Rubielos de Mora, 15th c

 In Mark Twain’s bitter last work, the short story “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” the narrator describes a vast line of saved souls eagerly waiting to receive their cloud, wings, and harp, so that they can commence sitting, flapping, and strumming for eternity. Once equipped, however, each soul gradually realizes that hanging out on a cloud and singing to oneself gets very old very quickly. Everyone’s worst fear is realized: heaven lasts forever, and it is boring.

Mary’s heaven

The painter of the Coronation of the Virgin with the Trinity begs to differ. His heaven abounds in the clouds, wings, and music that Twain parodies, but monotony and stasis are nowhere to be found. The painting is such a riot of vibrantly colored wings, intricately detailed haloes, lavishly draped garments, and delicately modeled faces that the eye hardly knows where to rest. The gaze somehow strives to encompass the whole image at once, simultaneously trying to rush around the outer circle of angels, ricochet between the Persons of the Trinity, and rest on the Virgin Mary. And here the Spanish painter known to us only as the Master of Rubielos de Mora has noticed something that escaped Twain: that heaven is so real, so alive, so dynamic, that we can only begin to understand it by looking at Mary, the Queen of Heaven.

Angel choirs

The swirling ring of angels around and beyond the border of the painting suggests that this is no ordinary vision of heaven, but a glimpse of the very heart of paradise, where the loftiest angels praise the Trinity for all eternity. And there, at the center of reality, we find that life is literally a song. The angels flanking the Father and the Son play a violin and a lute, accompanying the angelic hosts whose mouths are opened in a hymn of praise. But the angels—whose own individual personhood is emphasized by the unique golden pattern on each halo—do not praise God in the abstract: they surround the Trinity with their joy, calling all creation to join in their song of thanksgiving that God has shared his divine life with redeemed humanity. In doing so, the angels sing of Mary.

The Trinity speaks

The angels open their mouths in song, but the Persons of the Trinity speak forth living, personal love. The painter manifests the eternally generative love of the Trinity by depicting the Father and the Son breathing out the Holy Spirit, whose dove wings seem to flow out of their mouths. Unusually, all three Persons of the Trinity have crosses in their haloes, a refined painterly touch that emphasizes how God made known the mystery of the Trinity through the Incarnation of the Word, and gave humanity access to the Trinitarian life through the cross of Jesus Christ. But the saving work of the Trinity does not end with the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ; the painter shows the grandest horizon of human salvation by having the three Persons of the Trinity share in crowning Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth.

Who is at the center?

But here we come to an uncomfortable aspect of the painting: at the physical center of this image of heaven we find not the angels, not even the Trinity itself, but Mary. Is the Master of Rubielos de Mora displacing God, or making Mary into a fourth member of the Trinity? A passage from the medieval bestseller The Golden Legend sheds light on what’s really happening here. Speaking of the Assumption of Mary, it claims that “the ineffable Trinity praises itself with an everlasting dance of joy and causes all things to behold Mary by means of its grace, which overflows in all she is.” The Assumption and Coronation of Mary are not a distraction from the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the cross of Jesus Christ; Mary’s glorification in heaven is an integral part of how God desires to make his love known to human beings, and of how he pours out his grace. Mary crosses her hands in a posture of humble receptivity, visually echoing a gesture commonly found in depictions of the Annunciation, making it clear that her glory as Mother of God and Queen of Heaven is not hers by right, but is a gift of pure grace flowing from and leading back to the creative love of the Trinity. But this gift, which is given to her alone, is not given for her alone. Mary’s gaze unexpectedly breaks the frame of the painting and looks out directly at the viewer, inviting us not merely to see what God is doing for her, but to participate in that great mystery ourselves. Beholding Mary in the image mirrors how we behold Mary in our Christian lives: we look at her looking at us; considering her leads us to see the staggeringly personal love of the Trinity given to us in Jesus Christ; and finally we hear the angelic song praising God for the beauty he is, and the beauty he has made us for. God is in fact the dramatic center of the painting, but the painter’s fearless theological imagination enables him to place Mary at the focal point of our eyes, so that we can see in her Queenship the glory we are made for.

So what, in the end, is heaven? The Master of Rubielos de Mora helps us to see that heaven is not a place like any place we know, where we seek pastimes and stave off boredom; heaven is our eternal sharing in the overflowing love of the Trinity, where we praise God with our whole personhood, united with all the angels and saints. Gazing at Mary assumed into heaven and reigning as Queen sets us free to yearn for a glory beyond all imagining: to share with her in loving and serving the Trinity forever.

Father Gabriel Torretta, o.p.

Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and doctoral student at the University of Chicago.

Coronation of the Virgin with the Trinity (c. 1400), Master of Rubielos de Mora, 15th c., The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH. © Photo: Creative Commons CC0.