The Assumption of the Virgin is a work of art depicting the Virgin as she ascends to heaven, surrounded by the apostles. The underlying theme of The Assumption of the Virgin is religious as it depicts the assumption of the Virgin, which, to faithful Catholics of El Greco's time was not simply a spiritual or religious theme, but also a historical event. The symbolism used reaffirms the religious aspects of the painting. The apostles are shown, bending to the Virgin in reverence, and angels are shown waiting in heaven for the Virgin.
The work is narrative, because it shows an event and tells the story of that event. The story depicted in the painting was a familiar one to Catholics of El Greco's time, just as it is familiar to Catholics of today. Therefore, it is difficult to separate what story the painting is telling from the story of the Virgin's assumption. Looking solely at The Assumption of the Virgin, it is clearly telling the story of a woman who died, who released from her tomb, and who rose to heaven. In addition, it is clear that the woman was revered because of the looks of adoration and awe on the faces of the men surrounding her and the looks of welcome on the faces of the angels awaiting her in heaven.
Looking at The Assumption of the Virgin, one is almost compelled towards a feeling of peace. The first thing one notices when looking at the color scheme used by El Greco in The Assumption of the Virgin is that the colors used are those found in nature; people are colored like people, a tomb like a tomb, and so forth. The second thing one notices is that, one top of the natural-colors, there is a silvery wash, as if light is coming down from heaven. This silvery wash serves to further unify the colors. The silvery wash also lends an intensity to the colors that is not usually found in naturalistic paintings. The overall effect of the colors used is to portray a heavenly event being witnessed by ordinary people.
The directional lines emphasize the idea of the heavenly. At first, one might be tempted to say that The Assumption of the Virgin is vertically orientated, but that would be misleading because the work is not up and down: The Assumption of the Virgin is straight up. Not only is the Virgin ascending to heaven, but the Apostles are also portrayed with their arms extended heavenward. Furthermore, even in heaven, the Virgin and the angels are depicted with raised arms. One sees the clear upward lines from either group of the Apostles, leading towards the Virgin. The effect is exactly what was desired: the painting depicts elevation, exaltation, holiness.
One of the most striking features of The Assumption of the Virgin is El Greco's use of light to portray holiness. A light shines down from heaven, and at first one might believe it is the depiction of the sun, except that the Virgin is above the crescent moon. Instead, the light depicts the shine of heaven. There is an additional source of light from the left side of the painting, and those Apostles in the front left of the painting are depicted in its glow, standing. In contrast, the Apostles on the right are in shadow, either bending towards the ground or with their heads bent toward the ground. Light is used to convey, not just a sense of holiness, but also a sense of royalty. The Virgin is the enlightened queen; the Apostles are her subjects. Only by her assumption into heaven can the Apostles be illuminated.
El Greco's use of shape is important in telling the story of the assumption. The shapes are organic, as they depict humans and human-shaped angels. Although the tomb is geometrically shaped, is not a central element of the painting. In fact, the man-made tomb is depicted as a contrast to the realm of heaven, where there are no man-made limitations. In fact, not only are the shapes organic, but El Greco's depiction of the Virgin is ultra-organic. Those attributes that make her womanly, in fact, that make her religiously and/or historically significant are those that are emphasized in the painting. Her hips and thighs, those aspects that enabled her to give…