The Iconography of the Virgin Mary
Part Five: The Assumption
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").

THE FIGURE OF MARY

In the images of the Assumption, Mary is rarely seen being actually lifted from her sepulcher. The two exceptions I know of, a fresco in Orvieto and a Carraci Assumption, both present 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 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 1577 El Greco painted an Assumption in which Mary stands on a crescent moon. I have found no other European Assumptions picturing a crescent moon, which is often a feature of images of Mary as the Immaculate Conception. In Mexico, however, 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 such as one sees in Coronation of the Virgin images.

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.4
These 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 GIRDLE

Many Assumption images allude to the story of St. Thomas and Mary's "girdle." In The Passing of Mary Thomas is the one Apostle who is not among the others attending the Dormition. Instead, while saying Mass in India he is given a vision of Mary ascending into Heaven and cries out asking her to "make thy servant joyful through thy compassion." She responds by casting down to him the "girdle with which the apostles had encircled the most holy body." He is then transported to the cemetery in Jehosaphat, where he informs the others that Mary is no longer inside the sepulcher but has gone up to Heaven.

In the images, the "girdle" is always pictured as a sort of belt rather than the broad cloth one might expect from the legend (example). Some images will have Thomas standing among the other Apostles as Mary casts the girdle down from above (example). Others will show him standing alone as she passes it down to him (example).

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-07,09.

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Bergognone, late 15th / early 16th century (See description page)


Nebbia, 1350-90 (See description page)


Rubens, 1626 (See description page)

MORE IMAGES

DATES

  • Celebrated on August 15 in the West as the Feast of the Assumption, in the East as the Dormition.

RELEVANT MEDIEVAL AND EARLY CHRISTIAN DOCUMENTS

ALSO SEE

NOTES

1 Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, ¶44. An overview of the ancient literature on this subject is in ¶¶16-37 of the same text; another can be found in this note on the Dormition page.

2 "Third Discourse on the Dormition," in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, XCVIII, and Toal, IV, 423.

3 The Dormition of Our Lady, ¶14: Daley, 67.

4 "Second Oration on the Dormition," in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, XCVI and Toal, IV, 437 (¶18). The Oration also mentions the angelic songs on pages 428 and 431-32 (¶3 and ¶11).

5 The first reading for the Mass on Assumption Day was a passage from Ecclesiasticus 24 including the lines, "I was exalted like a palm tree in Cades, and as a rose plant in Jericho: As a fair olive tree in the plains, and as a plane tree by the water in the streets, was I exalted. I gave a sweet smell like cinnamon. and aromatical balm: I yielded a sweet odour like the best myrrh" (Missale Romanum, 601, Douay translation). From the Breviary for the same day: "I saw her lovely as a dove ascending above the waters, and an indescribable fragrance was in her garments; and roses and lilies of the valley surrounded her as if on a spring day" (Breviarum Romanum, 991-92, my translation).