Mary's Assumption into Heaven
Sacristy-Ceiling: Our Lady of the Angels, San Francisco
El Grande. Painting by Antonio da Contreras, 15 C.

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. . .Seeing that by preserving her from the corruption of the tomb he could give her such great honor, we must believe that he actually did so."

Speaking more poetically, St. John Damascene (d. 749), who is called the Doctor of the Assumption, writes, "On this day the sacred and life-filled ark of the living God, she who conceived her Creator in her womb, rests in the Temple of the Lord that is not made with hands.  David, her ancestor, leaps, and with him the angels lead the dance."
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 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 fourth 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.  As one Anglican scholar put it, "The belief was never founded on that story.  The story was founded on the belief, and testifies to the fact of the belief." 
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 Angel Gabriel comes to  Mary and announces that in three days she will die.  He presents her with a palm, symbol of the victory over sin and death that she shares with her Son.

  2. In answer to her earnest prayer, all the Apostles arrive to bid their farewell.
 3. Mary dies, and Christ comes to take her soul to heaven.   4.  In solemn procession, the Apostles bear Mary's body to her grave.
5. On the third day, her body is taken from the tomb by angels who carry it to heaven.  Later versions picture Mary rising by herself (like her Son at His Ascension) but still accompanied by hosts of angels.   6.  Mary is crowned as Queen of Heaven and Earth, a final completion, as it were, of her Assumption.  This has been depicted in four different ways: Often she is crowned by her Son alone; sometimes by one or two angels; on occasion by the Father alone; frequently by all Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity together.  The first and last of these proved to be the most popular versions.

Next Page:  "1. The Announcement of Mary's Death"

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