Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Vigil of the Feast of the Assumption -- Mary Prepares for Death


Attributed to Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci, Dormition and
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Cutting from a Book of Antiphons
Italian (Florence), c.1385-1399
London, British Library
MS Additonal 37955A




The Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is one of the major feasts of the Church year. The bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven upon her death has for centuries been celebrated in both the Eastern (Greek-speaking) and Western (Latin-speaking, now vernacular) churches.







Although it was not until 1950 that Pope Pius XII issued the Papal Bull “Munificentisisimus Deus”, 1 which declared that the Assumption was truly an article of faith, its history goes far, far back in time. It has been celebrated as a liturgical feast since shortly after the fourth century recognition of Christianity.










The belief in Mary’s bodily translation into heaven comes from several sources:

  • Theological reflection on Mary’s status as mother of Jesus, expressed as the belief (confirmed by the First Council of Ephesus in 431, the third ecumenical council 2) that, as the mother of the Christ she is also the Mother of God (in Greek Theotokos, in Latin Mater Dei) and, therefore, received a special dispensation both from Original Sin and from the physical effects of Death.
  • Further theological reflection that her status makes her the first human to experience the glorious state of those saved by Christ to which all who believe in Him will come at the end of time. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son's Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians.”3
  • The early appearance of liturgical celebrations of her death and assumption into heaven, as noted above, and the prayers that have been passed down from those liturgies.
  • The curious fact that in eras (such as the Middle Ages) intensely interested in the acquisition of relics of the saints, often resulting in unseemly events of theft and downright faking, no physical relics of Mary’s body parts seem to be located anywhere. This is especially interesting in view of the fact that many locations claim bits of the bodies of her contemporaries, such as St. John the Baptist or the Apostles. It is true that some places claim objects associated with the Virgin Mary, but this only makes the missing body more interesting. For, if the effect of the preservation of a garment believed to be her tunic from a fire in 1194 could have stimulated the amazing building activity of the Cathedral of Chartres 4 it is rather astonishing that no place claims her arm or hand or head.

Stories of more or less believability have grown up around the death of Mary, also called the Dormition (falling asleep) or (in Greek) the Koimesis of the Virgin and all of these have been translated into visual representations over the centuries. In this essay I will discuss the stories of some of the supposed events that preceded the Assumption itself. In another essay I describe some of the iconography related to the actual death, mourning and burial of the Blessed Virgin, while a separate essay deals with the images of the Assumption itself.  Further in two additional essays describe the final episodes, the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven and the images of Mary as Queen.   The sources of all these stories were collected together by Jacobus de Voragine in the Golden Legend,4 but they pre-existed his compilation and were known in both East and West.

The Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin. 


After living many years in the home of St. John the Evangelist, Mary was visited by an angel who greeted her “All hail blessed Mary, receiving the blessing of him that sent his blessing to Jacob. Lo! here a bough of palm of paradise, Lady, which I have brought to thee, which thou shalt command to be borne before thy bier. For thy soul shall be taken from thy body the third day next following, and thy son abideth thee, his honourable mother.4 This subject is one of the least frequently depicted by artists. However, images of it do exist, especially where there is a cycle of the stories surrounding Mary’s death and assumption.

Master Ingelard, Annunciation of the Death of Mary
From a Hymnarium
French (Paris, Saint-Germain-des-Pres), c. 1050
Paris, BNF
MS Latin 11550, fol. 275v


Duccio, Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo


Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin
From the De Lisle Hours
England (possibly York), 1316-1331
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 50, fol.160r


Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin
From Weltchronik
German (Regensburg), c. 1355-1365
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 769, fol. 299r


Brother Philipp, Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin
From Weltchronik
German (Regensburg), c.1400-1410
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS 33, fol. 304r


Bedford Master and Workshop, Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1430-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 359, fol.100r


Master of Peter Danielssoen, Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin
From Spiegel van den laven ons Heren and other works
Flemish (Brabant), c. 1450-1460
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 868, fol. 57v



Jean Colombe and Workshop, Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin
From the Hours of Anne of France
French (Bourges), 1473
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 677, fol. 158v



While this is largely a medieval subject it does appear in some later art, as for instance in this painting from the Dutch golden age.

Samuel van Hoogstraten, Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin
Dutch, c. 1670
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art


There is a beautiful choral anthem that describes Mary’s reaction composed recently by Sir John Tavener (born 1944), a convert to Orthodox Christianity, to which I’m adding a You Tube link. 





The gathering of the Apostles

In this portion of the story all the living apostles were miraculously brought by angels from all the places on earth to which their preaching had taken them so that they might be present for her death. This is also not too frequently depicted as a separate image.

The Apostles Gathered at the Virgin's Deathbed
English, 15th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Museum


Hans Suess von Kulmbach, The Apostles Gathered at the Virgin's Deathbed
German, First Quarter of 15th Century
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek


Austrian School Painter
Austrian, 15th Century
Paris, Musée du Louvre


The Apostles Gathered at the Virgin's Deathbed
Tyrolese, c. 1420-1430
London, National Gallery



Master of Peter Danielssoen, Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin
From Spiegel van den laven ons Heren and other works
Flemish (Brabant), c. 1450-1460
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 868, fol. 59r
In this image Mary has not yet taken to her bed.  She can be seen praying within her house as the Apostles approach.

Master of Peter Danielssoen, The Apostles Gathered at the Virgin's Deathbed
From Spiegel van den laven ons Heren and other works
Flemish (Brabant), c. 1450-1460
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 868, fol. 60v


Master Francois and Workshop, The Apostles Gathered at the Virgin's Deathbed
From Speculum historiale by Vincent of Beauvais
Franch (Paris), 1463
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 50, fol. 243r


Niccolo Pisano, The Apostles Gathered at the Deathbed of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1485-1500
Paris, Musée du Louvre



Hugo van der Goes, Death of the Virgin
Flemish, c. 1480
Bruges, Groeninge Museum
Usually called "Death of the Virgin" this is really the subject of the Apostles gathered in anticipation of Mary's death.  The confusion arises because of the supernatural presence of Christ.  However, he does not yet hold her soul, so this is the moment before death, not the moment of death.


Jacques de Besancon, Scenes from the Death of the Virgin
From Legenda aurea by Jacobus de Voragine
French (Paris), c. 1480-1490
Paris, Bibliothequen nationale de France
MS Francais 245, fol. 43r
This lovely illumination includes several parts of the story of Mary's death, as related in the Golden Legend.  At the bottom left the angel announces her approaching death to the Virgin, who is at prayer.  At the bottom right the Apostles gather from all over the world.  At the top, we see the moment of Mary's death, as she says her last words while angels begin to bear her soul toward her waiting Son in heaven.

Hans Klocker, Apostles Gathered Around Mary as She Waits for Death
Austrian, c. 1481-1495
Chicago, Art Institute


Workshop of Tilman Heysacker, The Apostles Gathered at Mary's Deathbed
German, Late 15th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection



Jean Poyer, Apostles Praying at the Virgin's Deathbed
From a Book of Hours
French (Tours), c. 1500
London, British Library
MS Yates Thompson 5, fol. 60r 


Master of the Amsterdam Death of the Virgin, Apostles Praying at the Virgin's Deathbed
Dutch, c. 1500
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum




Master of the Oberschoenenfelder Altar, Apostles Gathered at the Virgin's Deathbed
German, c. 1500
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldegalerie , Alte Pinakothek


Hans Holbein the Elder, Apostles Gathered Around Mary as She Waits for Death
German, c. 1502
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek


Hans Schaeufelein, The Apostles Gathered in Prayer at Mary's Deathbed
From the Christgatner Altar
German, c. 1515-1516
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek


Master of the Ango Hours, The Deathbed of the Virgin with Donor
From a Prayer Book
French (Rouen), c. 1515-1525
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Noubelle acquisition latine 83, fol. 65R



The Apostles at the Deathbed of the Virgin Mary
Flemish, c. 1520
London, Victoria and Albert Museum


Deathbed of the Virgin with Donor Alexius Funck and His Family
Austrian, c. 1521-1522
Vienna, Belvedere Museum


Carlo Saraceni, Apostles Gathered for the Death of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1610-1620
Venice, Gallerie della Accademia


Luca Giordano, Death of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1696
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie


Charles de la Fosse, Apostles Gathered Around Mary as She Waits for Death
French, c. 1700
Cherbourg-Octeville, Musée Thomas Henry


Cosmas Damian Assam, Death of the Virgin
German, c.  1725-1726
Klaudrae, Benedictine Abby Church of the Assumption


© M. Duffy, 2011, revised, with additional material 2019.  Completely revised 2022


Notes: 
1. Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus: Defining the Dogma of the Assumption, November 1, 1950. The complete text in English is available at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_p-xii_apc_19501101_munificentissimus-deus_en.html

2. For a review of the First Council of Ephesus see, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05491a.htm

3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second edition, article 966. Available online at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2C.HTM


4. Such legendary "events" as the annunciation of the Virgin's impending death, the gathering of the apostles in Jerusalem and the punishment of the sacrilegious men at the funeral come from the compilation of such legends made in the late 13th century known as the 

The Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea), Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, 1275, Englished by William Caxton, 1483, Vol. 4, pp. 110-117. Available online at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/goldenlegend/GoldenLegend-Volume4.asp#Assumption






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