Monday, August 15, 2011

Assumpta est Maria in caelum – Mary Is Assumed Into Heaven

Francesco Botticini, Assumption of the Virgin
Italian, ca. 1475
London, National Gallery
August 15 is a great day of celebration for the Christian Church, both East and West. The day commemorates the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Theotokos (Mother of God), into heaven.  She is assumed as a gift from her divine Son and, thus, has anticipated the glorification which is the destiny of all who have been saved by Christ.1 As previously discussed, this is a very ancient belief of the Church, although it was not declared an article of faith (a dogma) until 1950. There is no doubt about the antiquity of the belief, as it has been celebrated in the liturgy and in the visual arts for many centuries.

As I mentioned in my previous essay on the Dormition of the Virgin (click here), there are many legends associated with the basic belief that, at the end of her mortal life, Mary’s body and soul were taken up to heaven. There is an Old Testament precedent in the taking up of Elijah into heaven in the fiery chariot (2Kings 2:1-11).

In both the verbal and visual traditions the most important element in the Assumption is that Mary does not go to heaven through her own power, she is always taken there. This is the difference between the “assumption” of Mary and the “ascension” of Jesus. Jesus ascends to heaven by His own power, through His right as Lord and Savior.  He does not need help, Mary always does.

She is assisted by Christ Himself in early images.

Dormition of the Virgin
from Treves Sacramentary
Reichenau School, German, 1020-1040
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France
MS Latin 18005, fol. 188v
Dormition of the Virgin
from a Gospel Book
German, 1st half of the 12th century,
Paris, Bibliotheque National de France
MS Latin 17325

In later images she is propelled upward by the assistance of angels who pull and/or push her into heaven.  

Assumption of the Virgin
from Book of Hours and Prayers
South Netherlands, c. 1490-1500
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliothek,
MS KB 134 C47, fol. 201r

Jean Bourdichon, Assumption
from Book of Hours
French (Tours), ca. 1515
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M732, fol. 56v

However, as was true for images of the Ascension, there is a development in how the elements of the transport are presented.  In the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, Mary is frequently seen surrounded by a mandorla. It is this mandorla, whether a closed oval shape or a platform made of clouds, rather than her body that the angels touch as they propel her upward.
Assumption from  Sacramentary
German (Auhgsberg), 2nd-3rd quarter 11th century,
London, British Library
MS Harley 2908, fol. 23v 

Masolino, Assumption,
Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte,

Domenicho Ghirlandaio, Assumption,
Italiang, 1486-1490
Florence, Santa Maria Novella,
Tornabuoni Chapel

Filippino Lippi, Assumption
Italian, 1489
Rome, Santa Maria sopra Minerva,

As time progressed, the mandorla began to break up, eventually being replaced by effects of light.   
Titian, Assumption
Italian, 1516-1518
Venice, Santa Maria dei Frari,

Eventually, the scene becomes one in which Mary, amid clouds of glory, is bodily propelled by the angels who push her from below and lift her from above, as she looks joyfully upward toward her heavenly destination.

El Greco, Assumption
Greco-Spanish, 1577
Chicago, Art Institute

Nicolas Poussin, Assumption
French, 1650
Paris, Musee du Louvre 

Bartolomeo Murillo, Assumption
Spanish, 1670s
St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum

Many images of the Assumption show the scene as one in which the astonished apostles watch from the ground as she rises through the sky. They are frequently shown standing at her empty tomb, which may be filled with lilies, the symbol of Mary’s purity.

Peter Paul Rubens, Assumption
Flemish, 1626
Antwerp, Cathedral

Annibale Caracci, Assumption
Italian, 1600
Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo

Heinrich Jan Van de Bergh, Assumption
Design for stained glass window
American (?), 1950-1990
Washington, D.C., Library of Congress,

Sebastiano Ricci, Assumption
Italian, 1734
Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts

Some of the medieval images of the Assumption include the legendary detail of the Virgin’s belt. In this legend, St. Thomas, the one who missed the appearance of the Risen Christ to the other apostles and refused to believe the reality of the Resurrection until he had seen and touched the Risen Christ, was late again. Possibly, like many of us, he had time management issues!

St. Thomas Receives the Virgin's Belt,
from De Lisle Hours,
English (possibly York), 1316-1331,
New York, Morgan Library
MS G 50, 162v
St. Thomas Receives the Virgin's Belt,
Stained Glass, English, 1325-1350
Beckley, Oxfordshire, Church of the
Assumption of St. Mary the Virgin,

Whatever his reason, Thomas missed the death and funeral of Mary, as well as the Assumption. Again he refused to believe without proof. So, Mary appeared to him, removed the belt she wore around her waist and dropped it to him from heaven. This putative relic is kept in the Cathedral of Prato, where it is solemnly displayed five times a year.  Although this tradition continues in Prato today,3 the image of this story appears to have died out in the iconographic tradition at the end of the medieval period.

Bartolommeo Bulgarini,
St. Thomas Receives the Virgin's Belt
Italian, 1360s
Siena, Pinacoteca Nationale,

Benozzo Gozzoli, St. Thomas Receives the Virgin's Belt
Italian, c. 1450
Vatican City State, Musei Vaitcani, Pinacoteca

I will close with the beautiful motet by Palestrina, Assumpta est Maria in caelum, performed by the early music ensemble, Stile Antico. The text comes from the liturgy of the hours for the feast of the Assumption: “Mary has been taken up into heaven; the angels rejoice. They bless the Lord and sing his praises. The Virgin Mary was taken up to the heavenly bridal chamber where the King of Kings is seated on a starry throne.”

1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2, Chap. 3, Art. 9, ¶ 6, #966. It is available online at
2. The Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea), Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, 1275, Englished by William Caxton, 1483, Vol. 4, pp. 110-117. Available online at
3. See the website for the diocese of Prato at

© M. Duffy, 2011

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