A Thousand Words
The Asam Brothers' The Assumption
Mary Elizabeth Podles
"Museums," muses the art historian Germaine Bazin, "have distorted most people's view of painting—we tend to base our appreciation only on what we see there." The common perception, then, that eighteenth-century German painting is an inferior product is held among many writers because, as Bazin goes on to say, "they have forgotten to look up, and to absorb the forms and colours displayed on the church ceilings." Today let us journey down the Danube to the Benedictine Abbey of St. George and St. Martin in Weltenburg, Germany, and cast our eyes up, upward to the Asam brothers' magnificent Assumption, and see how the criticism holds up.
The Assumption ceiling was begun in 1716 and not finished until 1721; the overall effect is overwhelming. It is hard to know where to begin. Where does the architecture leave off and the Asams' embellishment begin? A broad band of stucco, shallowly concave, shows scenes from Benedictine history in the round and in low relief. This is Egid Quirin's sculpture: it rises upward towards the elliptical space in the center, the tricks of architectural perspective making the shallow space seem deeper than it is. At the edge of the ellipse, stucco clouds and angels spill over the sides and hold up a ring of gilded stucco crowned with stars and suns.
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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.
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