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Taken Up into Heaven

 


Luciano Minguzzi (b. 1911)Madonna, 1961
bronze with porphyry pedestal
Vatican Museums, Inv. 23774

General Description

Heavy but light, this bronze sculpture of the Madonna shows her Assumption into heaven. Her face is turned toward the above; her hands are joined in prayer. The nimble movement of the feet suggests weightlessness. The bulky body is driven heavenward in a powerful upsurge of her whole being. A victory over gravity, this rendering of the Assumption celebrates the spirit, in Mary’s case the spirit of her Son. This work is typical of Minguzzi’s spare and broken lines, surfaces that reflect colors created by light, and his ability to breathe life into matter. The sculpture shown here is a preparatory sketch for the fifth door of the Duomo in Milan (1965). Minguzzi is the artist of the Gate of Good and Evil for Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome (1977).

The Feast of the Assumption (= taken up into heaven)

There are four solemnities honoring the Mother of Jesus that are kept throughout the Catholic Church: The Immaculate Conception (December 8), her divine Motherhood (January 1), the Annunciation (March 25), her Assumption (August 15). The last named has become the most celebrated, giving rise to all manner of festivities and to a great variety of pictorial representations.

The New Testament says nothing about Mary's death and Assumption, but as Pius XII states in the constitution Munificentissimus Deus, which defined belief in the Assumption as a matter of faith: "All the arguments and considerations of the Fathers and theologians rest on Sacred Scripture for their ultimate foundation.  The Scriptures present the beloved Mother of God as most intimately united with her divine Son as ever sharing in his lot.  Hence, it seems all but impossible to see her who conceived Christ. . .as separated from him, if not in soul, yet in body, after her life on earth was over.” Documentation testifies that the feast was celebrated first in the Eastern Church in the second half of the sixth century. Pope Sergius I (687-701) ordered its observance in Rome. At first it was to be kept as a memorial of Mary’s death, her falling asleep (Koimesis), and it gradually came to be a commemoration of her Assumption as such.

An apocryphal work of the sixth century, the Transitus Mariae (The Passing of Mary), which appeared in several languages and in many versions, no doubt had some effect in spreading belief in the Assumption.  But the Church's faith in this teaching is not based on it. 

Variations on the Theme of the Assumption

Minguzzi’s sculpture of the Assumption is a free interpretation of the traditional iconography of the Assumption which has many and varied facets. Over the centuries Christian art has given varied expression to belief in Mary's Assumption.  We can divide the progress of these expressions into three principal "moments:" Mary's falling asleep (her death), her rising to heaven (the Assumption), and finally her Coronation.  Each of these moments gave rise to some ancillary episodes so that at length we can enumerate the following stages: 

1. The Announcement of Mary’s Death

According to the Transitus legend the Angel Gabriel was sent to tell Mary that in three days she would die and be reunited with her Son in heaven.  Gabriel gives her a palm, symbol of her victory over sin and death.  It is to be carried before her coffin as her body is taken in procession to its grave.

Our first picture is from an English manuscript of the early 1170s, the so-called York Psalter. English Psalters at this time included a series of illustrated pages preceding the text.  Pictures dealing with Mary's death were a new theme, however, and that series is perhaps the most striking feature of the York Psalter.  The book is housed at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, Scotland.

The second illustration is from the Book of Hours made by the artist Jean Fouquet (1420-1481) for Etienne Chevalier (1410-1474), court official and treasurer to King Charles VII.  Fouquet produced the book between 1453 and 1456.  The volume became well known in its day and served as a model for many other Books of Hours.

2. The Apostles Bid Farewell to Mary

When she learns of her approaching death, Mary prays that the Apostles would come that she might see them one last time. The Transitus Mariae tells of their coming on clouds from the places where their missions have taken them. At this time Mary gives the palm to John and warns the Apostles that the Jews will attempt to dishonor her body as it is being carried to the grave. The York Psalter shows Mary giving the palm to John. Peter stands slightly behind John, and behind him is a group of three Jews. The York Psalter is an English manuscript of the twelfth century now in the Hunterian Museum of Glasgow, Scotland. In a different scene, we see the Apostles at the left, greeting one another as they arrive.  Peter, a white-bearded figure, shakes hands with Paul, often portrayed as bald.  At the right, John kneels before Mary.  Behind her is the palm, studded with stars that she will give John to carry. This scene appears at the top of the font of Duccio’s masterpiece, the Maestà, an altarpiece created for the Cathedral of Siena between 1308 and 1311.  While parts of it have disappeared and eight panels are in museums elsewhere, most of the work is now housed in the Museum of the Cathedral of Siena.

3. Mary's Death in East and West

The Eastern Churches speak of the Blessed Virgin's entrance into heaven as her Koimesis, her falling asleep.   All versions of this theme follow a highly uniform pattern. In general, Mary lies on a richly decorated bier.  The Apostles in mourning are arranged on either side.  Peter, in front at the left, swings a censer.  Opposite him, on the right stands Paul.  Christ in glory dominates the center.  In his hands he holds the soul of his Mother, depicted as a small doll-like figure swaddled in white.Angels form a choir around Christ.  At the top hovers a six-winged seraph, member of the highest choir of angels.  Behind the Apostles are three bishops, disciples of the Apostles, traditionally named Dionysius, Hierotheus and Timotheus.  They are said to have been the first to bring to others the news of Mary's Assumption.  In back of them are several women mourners.

Our first example, much simplified, is a Byzantine ivory from the second half of the tenth century.  Here Christ holds Mary's soul aloft, giving it to the two angels above him.  This plaque is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

From the first half of the fifteenth century comes this Russian icon, a product of the Tver School of Painting.  Because of the beautiful blue background, it is known as the "Heavenly Blue Dormition."  An unusual feature: in the sky we see the Apostles, each accompanied by an angel, arriving on clouds to be present at Mary's death.  The icon is now at the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow. 

Western artists transformed the scene of Mary’s death. This painting by Fra Angelico (1400-1455) marks such departure from Eastern versions of Mary's death.  Here her soul is depicted as a full standing figure and no longer as a child.  A cruciform nimbus surrounds Christ's head, and all the Apostles wear haloes, inscribed with their names.  At the far right, John carries the palm of victory.  Angels stand at the extremities of the picture.  One has a censer, another a holy water stoup, and a third carries a very tall candle.  Dating from 1435, the work is now in the Museum of San Marco in Florence.  It was originally connected to the painting of the Coronation of Mary, which is in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence. This Coronation will introduce another section of our survey.

4. The Blessed Virgin's Funeral

As already noted, Mary, in her Transitus legend, predicted that after she dies, Jews would attempt to burn her body. A thirteenth century (1232) Gospel book from Armenia, the Evangeliary of Tarmanchats, depicts the scene as most Eastern artists did.  In general, the apostles and Christ are seen as in icons of the death of Mary. Added to this, however, is a further detail.  A single Jew, generally identified as one Jephonias, tries to overturn the bier.  As he does so, the Archangel Michael, with his sword, strikes off his hands, which then remain attached to the bier.  As the Transitus goes on to report, however, Jephonias repents and his hands are restored.  The Tarmanchats Evangeliary is in the Matenadaran Library at Erevan, Armenia.

 

5. Mary Is Assumed into Heaven

Pictures of the Assumption as such are the product of Western imagination. To highlight the many variations on this theme we have chosen paintings by Titian and El Greco, contrasting “movement” and “silence.”

Titian (c. 1488-1576) early on became the most sought-after painter in Venice.  In 1516, the Franciscans at the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari commissioned him to paint this Assumption. Completed in 1518, the work was the largest altarpiece ever painted in Venice.  This is a most dramatic rendering of the Assumption.  Every figure is in movement.  Mary herself is intensely alive as she sweeps through the golden light of heaven and gazes in adoring wonder at God the Father, who hovers protectingly above her.

This Assumption is one of eight canvases that El Greco (1541-1614) painted for Toledo's Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo.Dated 1577, it is the earliest of the works created during his Spanish period.  As contrasted with the treatment of some Italian masters, namely Titian, it is a work of silence.  As one writer puts it, "Quiet is the Madonna's Ascension, quiet the witnessing of the Miracle by the Apostles.” The painting is now in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Besides angels above and apostles below, some representations of the Assumption show the apostle Thomas catching the Virgin’s cincture that falls into his waiting hand (e.g., Bernardo Zenale).

6. The Crowning of Mary

The Coronation of Mary completes, so to say, the mystery of her Assumption. Artists have depicted this event in four different ways. Many show Mary crowned by Christ alone, a few by one or two angels, some by the Father alone, and others by all three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. While artists of the Christian East introduced the subject of Mary’s Falling Asleep and those of Italy that of her Assumption, it was the artists of France who began picturing her Coronation.

1. The earliest of these Coronations by Christ alone is an anonymous polychromed ivory done in Paris sometime during the third quarter of the thirteenth century. Mary, hands joined in prayer, bends slightly toward the Son, who, himself crowned, has just placed a crown on her head. This ivory group is in the Louvre.

The most extraordinary work that Raphael (1482-1520) created in his early years is this Coronation, commissioned by the Oddi family of Perugia for their chapel in the Church of San Francisco. As in many pictures of the Assumption proper, the Apostles are gathered around Mary's empty tomb from which flowers now spring.  Peter and Paul are on either side of Thomas, who holds the cincture that Mary has dropped down to him.  Above, on the flat cloud, Christ crowns Mary has dropped down to him.  Above, on the flat cloud, Christ crowns him.  Above, on the flat cloud, Christ crowns Mary as four angels provide music.  A number of angel heads fill up the space atop of the picture.  The painting is now in the Vatican Picture Gallery.

2. Pictures showing God the Father crowning Mary are not very numerous.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) painted this Coronation, commissioned by the Goldsmith's Guild of Florence, between 1488 and 1490. Below are four saints: an elderly John Evangelist, St. Augustine, St. Jerome and the patron of the Goldsmith's Guild, St. Eligius.High above, a semi-circle of cherubim and seraphim surround God the Father and Mary.  Other angels dance about jubilantly and strew flowers.  The painting is now in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence.

3. Representations of the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity crowning Mary become numerous during and after the fifteenth century.

Dirck Bouts (1415-1475) places the Coronation within an unpretentious chapel.  Father and Son are seated on a simple canopied throne.  With his triple crown, orb, and a large morse for his crimson cloak, the Father, heavily bearded, is the more imposing figure.  The Son, clad in the poverty of his human nature, appears lower in stature.  Within a bright mandorla, the Holy Spirit shines between them as they hold a crown above Mary's head.  Over on the sides, six angels form a small choir.

4. Works of the late twelfth century and of the early thirteenth, we see, preferred to show Mary as crowned by angels.  This preference is evident even in works of the late fifteenth century as in a Book of Hours dated between 1460 and 1470.  Seated on a canopied throne, God the Father blesses Mary, who kneels before him.  Sweeping down from a starlit sky, an angel places a rather heavy crown on Mary's head.  This Book of Hours, made for use in the diocese of Troyes, is now in an undisclosed collection.

For more information:

For more detailed information on the variations of the Assumption theme consult The Mary Page:  www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/maryassump1.html

Representations of Jewish people at the funeral of the Virgin Mary suggest what one might call today “anti-Semite tendencies.” Read Elisheva Revel-Neher, The Image of the Jew in Byzantine Art, Pergamon Press, 1992.

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