Today August 15 is the official feast day of the “Assumption of Mary”. It’s a holiday in many, mostly Catholic, countries. But what is it about and how has it been depicted in art? This day is to celebrate that the Holy Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, is taken up into Heaven at the end of her earthly life. It’s not so much a historic event, but it’s deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, belief and faith. The historic element is that somewhere around the year 41, Mary passed away. From around the 3rd century the belief was added that the body of Mary was taken up into Heaven and in that sense she followed her son Jesus Christ, who was crucified and subsequently taken into Heaven about 10 years earlier. From the 5th century onwards, it was added that all the apostles were present at this very moment, which is depicted on the many paintings with Mary’s Assumption. They are the group of guys looking up in astonishment when Mary is taken into Heaven, up into the arms of God. On most paintings Mary goes up with the help of angels, like on the gigantic Titian altar piece, almost 7×4 meters, which is still on its original location in the Frari Church in Venice.
There is still an endless dispute about the moment just before the heavenly Assumption of Mary. Did Mary only fell asleep, the so-called “Dormition”, and then went up? Or did she actually also really die? The official Catholic dogma around the subject is not clarifying this element. Pope Pius XII proclaimed in 1950 that Mary indeed “completed her earthly life” and that her body and soul went up into heavenly glory. The Pope used his Papal authority to declare this dogma and did so with “Papal Infallibility”. He made not clear if Mary just fell asleep and went up, or if she also really died before going up into Heaven. On the Titian painting, Mary goes up into Heaven and no indication of the moment just before the Assumption. On the Carracci painting from the Prado, Madrid, Mary is ascending from a tomb, which would indicate that Mary indeed died. On the Rubens altar piece, still in its original location in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, the tomb is also present.
I think the Assumption of Mary is a beautiful belief and it’s great to depict this story. Every viewer of a painting with the Assumption of Mary, the mother of Christ, has a mother him- or herself and many viewers are also “mother” themselves. And all those mothers will one day pass away. It must have given – and still gives – a lot of comfort to know or believe that Mary, as the mother of all mothers, was taken up into heaven after her death. It gives hope to everyone, and certainly to our mothers, that one day they will follow Mary up into Heaven. August 15 is a public holiday, but it’s above all the ultimate and sacred Mother’s Day.