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The Assumption of the Virgin Mary

The earliest known western account of Mary's bodily assumption into Heaven is in Gregory of Tours' 6th-century Glory of the Martyrs. Seventh-century Greek sermons on the subject by John Damascene and Germanus also circulated in the west in translation, and in succeeding years other works embellished the story. Although the accounts sometimes contradict each other with respect to details, these elements are common to most of them:

  • John the Evangelist and the other apostles (plus various evangelists, virgins, and disciples) are miraculously transported from all over the world to Jerusalem (or Bethlehem) to attend Mary in her final hour.
  • The apostles gather around the Virgin and make speeches (or pray or sing, led by Peter).
  • Mary lies in her bed and her soul rises up (or Christ takes it up) to Heaven. There is a sweet smell. This event is called the Dormition (that is, the "falling asleep") of the Virgin.
  • The apostles carry the body to Gethsemane (or the Valley of Jehoshaphat).  Two interruptions occur along the way. One is a mob come to protest (or to burn the body).  The other is a Jew (or high priest) whose hand is damaged when he touches the bier; he begs for mercy, is healed, and converts.
  • The body is interred.  Thereupon (or after three days) the soul returns to the body and Mary goes up (or is taken up by angels or by Christ) bodily to Heaven.  The event is witnessed by the apostles (or unseen because of a blinding light) and attended by a sweet smell and the voices (or singing) of angels.  It is called the Assumption (that is, the "taking up") of the Virgin.
  • The action either continues in Heaven with a welcome by Christ or returns to the apostles.
  • In some texts St. Thomas (or an unnamed apostle) arrives late and either demands proof of the Assumption or attests to it (having seen it from afar) and is asked for proof by the apostles.  In either case, the proof is a belt given to the apostle by Mary.

Most texts use language and imagery consistent with certain popular concepts regarding Mary:

  • That the Bride in the Song of Solomon is a type of the Virgin: Speeches by Christ to Mary tend to draw imagery from this book.
  • That she is a Queen: This is especially true of the language that attends her welcome into Heaven.
  • That she is "immaculate": Much of the language describing Mary is consistent with belief in the Immaculate Conception, though that belief is not put forward explicitly.

In the 13th century the Golden Legend combined a great many Assumption accounts into three separate narratives, preserving some of the contradictions without comment and thus leaving artists of ensuing years a profusion of details to choose from.

Narrative images of the Assumption are often part of compositions that integrate the Dormition and Coronation of the Virgin (example).  Details taken from the literature include flowers and musical instruments to signify the "marvelous odor" and "voice of angels" described in most accounts (example) and arranging the apostles around the tomb, as at left.  The open horizontal tomb seen at left is the rule for Assumption images, even though the texts seem to assume burial inside some sort of monument.   Some later images may show some of the apostles in an initial state of perplexity regarding the empty tomb (example).  Annibale Carraci's has them watch awestruck as, still within touching distance, she rises heavenward.

The second Assumption account in the Golden Legend says that it was Christ who took Mary's body up to Heaven, but the art consistently ignores this possibility, perhaps to avoid confusion with Dormition scenes.  In the middle ages, angels carry the Virgin aloft in a mandorla (example).  In Renaissance and Counter-Reformation art the mandorla loses favor and Mary seems to rise with very little visible assistance or effort, as at left.

There are also portrait images of the "Virgin of the Assumption" with only the Virgin rising through the sky accompanied by angels (example).  One unusual narrative image also takes this approach.

In many cases Mary will have a horned moon beneath her feet (example), an allusion to Revelation 12:1


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