The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Art

Happy feast of the Assumption! Today, we Catholics commemorate the fact that “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” Pope Pius XII formally declared this to be a dogma of our faith in 1950.

Note that we’re not sure whether the Virgin Mary actually died or not, and so Pope Pius left that open. For centuries, however, artists have not hesitated to portray the death of the Blessed Virgin, surrounded by the Apostles, with her Son coming down to take her to heaven with Him. In fact, depictions of the death of the Blessed Virgin Mary were so common that in the Middle Ages, they acquired a standardized form and are easily recognizable. Here in Rome, we have a couple of exceptional, late 13th-century mosaics depicting this scene in our churches. Take a look at the work of Jacopo Torriti, who completed this mosaic in Saint Mary Major in 1295:

Assumption St Mary Major

You can see that the Virgin Mary is lying in the center, while behind here stands Our Lord, surrounded by an almond-shaped halo known as a mandorla. We can identify practically everyone in this scene: the Apostles to Mary’s right and left, a few angels on either side of Christ, and in the top corners are a number of saints awaiting Mary’s arrival in heaven. But there’s one mysterious figure which stumps most viewers. Who is the infant that Christ is holding in His arms?

This isn’t just Torriti’s random artistic interpretation of the scene, either. Here is the great Pietro Cavallini’s version of the same event, finished during roughly the same period in the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere:

Assumption Cavallini

Once again, Jesus is holding a child in His arms. Can you figure out who it is?

The infant is Mary’s soul. Jesus is seen to come to the bedside of His dying Mother, in order to take her soul to Heaven. This would suggest, of course, that Mary did indeed die, and her body was assumed into Heaven afterwards.

Maybe this is how it really happened, maybe not. But you have to admit, it’s a lovely image in any artist’s rendition, isn’t it? God took His sinless Mother, body and soul, to be with Him in Paradise–and that is a unique privilege reserved for the one who was conceived without original sin. “O Mary, assumed into Heaven, pray for us!”