Since at least the 4th century and probably earlier Catholic and Orthodox Christians have believed that "Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory."1 Mary first "falls asleep" (the "Dormition") and her soul is taken by Christ. Then Christ has the Apostles carry the body to Gethsemane (or Jehosaphat, depending on the source), where they lay her in a sepulcher. A little later her body and soul are reunited and she is taken into Heaven (the "Assumption").
Assumption images are especially popular in the tympana of Gothic cathedrals, where they are often in a second register, above the Dormition and below the Coronation (example). In paintings the Assumption is usually treated separately from the other two events, although Peter Candid merged it eloquently with the Coronation in this canvas.
THE FIGURE OF MARY
In the images of the Assumption, Mary is not often seen being actually lifted from her sepulcher. One exception, a Carraci Assumption, presents a hefty Mary who looks as if she would be hard to lift, in order to visualize the message that this is a real human body.
But usually we see a more otherworldly Mary on her way up toward Heaven. In the 13th to 15th centuries it is common to show angels lifting her aloft in a mandorla, as in the second picture at right and this tympanum from Croatia. The angels correspond to the "great multitude of angels keeping her company" described in the Golden Legend (Ryan, II, 82). Sometimes the mandorla has a cloud base. From the 15th century onward the images are more and more likely to show Mary rising on a cloud that angels are helping to lift (example). Some images leave out the Apostles and the scene below, and all we see is Mary with some putti (example). Her hands are often pressed together in prayer, as in the first and second pictures at right. Sometimes the arms are extended, as in the third picture at right, or less commonly held across the breast, as in this one. Many artists have her garments flutter briskly in the wind (example), perhaps influenced by St. Germanus's remark that a "sudden wind" swept her winding sheet up into the sky so that it "was seen moving like a swift cloud."2 (In the Rubens painting at right the winding sheet flutters above Mary's head.)
In most of Europe it is rare for an Assumption to picture Mary standing on a crescent moon, which is associated with images of the Immaculate Conception. In Spain, however, the crescent is not uncommon (example). In Mexico too, a number of ancient statues of Mary standing on a crescent moon were identified for us by local informants as Assumptions. The one at Tlacolula uses the fluttering garments, cloud, and supporting angels characteristic of Assumption iconography. Another at Teitipac has all this plus a crown.
THE APOSTLES AT THE SEPULCHER
In John of Thessalonica's 7th-century account the Apostles returned to the sepulcher after three days and opened it to venerate the Virgin's body "but found only her grave-garments, for she had been taken away by Christ."3 In about 740 John Damascene's version added some details that would be important in the art:
For three days a chorus of angels continued to sing above it [the sepulcher]. After the third day, when the angelic singing had ended, the Apostles…now desired to venerate the body that had borne God; and they opened the little tomb. But no trace of her all-blessed body could be found; and taking the winding sheets, which were filled with fragrance, they closed the tomb.4These two sources account for many of the details in subsequent images. The Apostles will be shown standing around the open sepulcher, either puzzled or looking up in awe. In later paintings the angelic singing will be pictured as angels playing instruments, as in this detail from Lippi's 1492 fresco. The fragrance that John Damascene mentions later develops into floral imagery in the Breviary and Mass for Assumption day,5 which in turn leads to images that feature a profusion of flowers in the sepulcher (example).
Some larger images of the Assumption will include three young women along with the Apostles, as in the third picture at right. These are the "three virgins" who John of Thessalonica and the Golden Legend say were present at the Dormition to wash Mary's body and prepare it for burial (Ryan, 80; Daley, 64).
ST. THOMAS AND THE VIRGIN MARY'S BELT
The Golden Legend says St. Thomas arrived too late for the Assumption and refused to believe the Apostles' account until Mary's belt "came to him from the air." This is what is pictured in Della Gatta's The Lady of the Assumption Gives St. Thomas Her Belt. However, most images involving the belt follow a quite different account. In The Passing of Mary Thomas is saying Mass in India when he is miraculously transported to the Mount of Olives and given a vision of Mary ascending into Heaven. He cries out asking Mary to "make thy servant joyful through thy compassion," and she responds by casting down to him the "girdle with which the apostles had encircled the most holy body" when they placed it in the sarcophagus (image). He is then transported to Jehosaphat, where he informs the Apostles that Mary is no longer inside the sepulcher but has gone up to Heaven. It is they who disbelieve, until he shows them the belt.
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-07,09, 2018-02-17.
RELEVANT MEDIEVAL AND EARLY CHRISTIAN DOCUMENTS