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.
What is Pentecost and how is it depicted in art? Pentecost (UK: Whitsunday; NL: Pinksteren) is a Christian holy day, that must be seen in connection with Easter and the Ascension of Christ. It’s celebrated 50 days after Easter Sunday, and 10 days after Ascension Day. The word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek word “Πεντηκοστή” and simply means “fiftieth”. What happened is the following: Easter is the moment of the crucifixion and resurrection; at Ascension Day the physical body of Christ goes up to heaven and with Pentecost the spirit of Christ comes back to earth in the form of the Holy Ghost. And the Holy Ghosts descend upon the Apostles, the disciples of Christ, so that they can start spreading His word around the world.
This can be depicted with great drama. Look at El Greco’s painting from c. 1600. The Apostles and Maria are being covered by light and flames coming down from above, and the Holy Ghost is descending in its classic form of a white dove. Their hands up in wonder, and their faces with big glorious admiration. Drama galore! Small mundane detail: the second apostle from the right in the top row has been given the portrait of El Greco himself, and he is the only one looking at us viewers.
If I may demystify this moment a bit, than let’s look at the fresco by Giotto from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, painted roughly 300 years before the El Greco painting. It’s the Apostles, sitting together in a meeting session. It’s a few weeks after the moment Christ left them, and can it be that they are going from a mourning phase into a phase of accepting what happened? They are discussing how to move forward and they are deciding to spread the good word of Christ around the world. They seem to have received a sparkle of hope; they are seeing now light in darkness. Giotto depicted this moment as rays of light (or fire) coming from above and spreading over the Apostles. Compare this to the El Greco painting where this abstract concept of seeing light in darkness has been turned into a visual concrete drama with rays of light, the dove and flames descending upon the Apostles.
to put Ascension and Pentecost next to each other, please look at these 17th
Century Dutch prints: Ascension as the physical movement of Christ up to heaven
and Pentecost as the spiritual movement of the Holy Ghost down from heaven.