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The Queen Of Heaven’s Glorious Passage From Time Into Eternity

August 10, 2022 Frontpage No Comments

By JAMES MONTI

In the U.S. the solemnity of our Lady’s Assumption is one of the six holy days of obligation, yet it does not receive anything near the attention it deserves. But in other parts of the world, the Assumption is celebrated as one of the most important feasts of the liturgical year, and in a manner that casts it as somewhat like an “Easter Triduum” for our Lady, beginning somberly as a commemoration of her departure from this world and concluding with the utterly glorious joy of her reunion with her Divine Son in Heaven.
It was in November of 1950, in the apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus, that Venerable Pope Pius XII defined as a dogma of the faith the Assumption of Our Lady in body and soul into Heaven. The key words from this document, formally defining this dogma, are as follows:
“. . . by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: 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” (Munificentissimus Deus, November 1, 1950, n. 44 — Copyright © Dicastero per la Comunicazione — Libreria Editrice Vaticana).
Although Pope Pius XII does make references in his apostolic constitution to the death of our Lady, he does not make these references part of his formal definition of the Assumption in and of itself, thus leaving open the question of whether the Blessed Virgin experienced death, the separation of her soul and body, albeit just briefly, prior to the Assumption of her incorrupt body and soul into Heaven, or if she simply fell into a sort of sleep, a “dormition” without the separation of soul and body, before being carried into Heaven. Across the centuries, both of these alternative beliefs regarding what took place immediately prior to the Assumption have coexisted, with the belief that our Lady did experience an actual death predominating in the Christian West. In the customs surrounding the celebration of the Assumption, however, one can often find both beliefs intermingled.
Even though there is no account of the Assumption in the Sacred Scriptures, evidence for the belief in this dogma from an extremely early date is abundant, mostly especially in the wide diffusion of apocryphal accounts of this event that can be traced as far back as the third century. Like all apocryphal texts, these accounts are so overloaded with fantastic and outlandish details that it can be really difficult to sort out what is fact from what is fiction in them.
Yet their very existence at such an early date and their early dissemination in such a variety of languages attests to the Apostolic Church having experienced something totally out of the ordinary when our Lady passed from this world — her Transitus. From the earliest texts onward, there is mention of a miraculous assemblage of the apostles at the deathbed of our Lady. The apostles are described as carrying her on a bier to her tomb, a tomb from which her body is subsequently taken up to Heaven.
In Spain, Portugal, and Latin America, the annual commemoration of the Assumption is most particularly distinguished by the veneration of a three-dimensional image of our Lady in a recumbent deathbed posture, exposed in churches, convents, and monasteries for the prayerful visiting of the faithful, and carried in procession to celebrate this great Marian feast.
In Spain and Latin America, these images of Mary, portrayed as asleep, are most commonly laid out upon a lavish canopied bed, usually in the “Spanish Golden Age” style of the beds of Spanish nobles, as an expression of the utmost reverence for Mary’s dignity as the Mother of God. It is because of this almost universal Hispanic custom of setting Mary in her Transitus upon a bed that such images are traditionally referred to as “la Virgen de la Cama” (“the Virgin of the Bed”). But there are also some Hispanic examples of the recumbent Mary being placed upon a bier or in a glass-walled casket.
The Hispanic tradition in this regard is particularly well represented by Quito, Ecuador, where there is scarcely any church or private home that does not possess an image of our Lady on her deathbed. It is, however, particularly in the convents of women religious, not only in Quito but likewise in Spain and throughout the lands colonized by the Spaniards, that this custom reached the height of its devotional intensity from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries.
A document dating from 1609 describes the establishment in Quito of an annual procession on the Sunday within the octave of the Assumption that would begin at the Conceptionist nuns’ Monastery of the Immaculate Conception, where a statue of our Lady recumbent in death would be enshrined upon a catafalque covered in silk and surrounded by a multitude of torches and candles. Upon the completion of Vespers, the statue would be carried in procession beneath a canopy through the city square, which would be adorned for the occasion with hangings, arriving thereafter in the cathedral of Quito, where prayers for the Feast of the Assumption would be said.
The statue would then be carried to the church of the Jesuits before returning to the Conceptionists’ convent, where Our Lady’s Assumption would be visually re-enacted by the elevation of the statue accompanied by celebratory music.
The particular details of Our Lady’s recumbent posture in the Hispanic sculptures of her Transitus vary in significant ways. In some depictions her hands are gently folded over her heart, while in others her hands are joined in prayer. Most often her eyes are closed to indicate that she is asleep in death, or at least asleep in her “dormition,” but there are some depictions with Our Lady’s eyes open, perhaps to denote her final moments before her Transitus, or the moment of her waking from her Transitus.
In Transitus depictions from the sixteenth century onwards, the Blessed Virgin is consistently portrayed as young, looking much younger than the age she would have been at the end of her life. In some cases, she has the look of a teenage girl, with especially beautiful examples of this to be found in the Spanish localities of Acered, Olves, Tobed, and Manchones. With two of these latter images, those of Olves and Acered, a bouquet of flowers is placed in the folded, praying hands of Mary.
The head of the recumbent Virgin is in some cases veiled, but in others unveiled. In the case of the Transitus image of Our Lady at the Carmelite nuns’ Monastery of Carmen Alto in Quito, Ecuador, the head is veiled with a mantilla. This latter image bears in the hands the palm branch that figures prominently in the ancient apocryphal accounts of Mary’s Transitus. The bed upon which this Quito image of our Lady rests is flanked by full-sized statues of the Apostles, again in keeping with the ancient Transitus narratives that speak of the Apostles being miraculously gathered together at Mary’s deathbed.
Most images of Our Lady in her Transitus, though not all, bear a crown or diadem upon the head, or a wreath of flowers. Usually she is depicted as clothed in a richly brocaded dress and mantle. With the very youthful images of Our Lady in Acered, Olves, Tobed, and Manchones, however, she is attired in a simple white dress, with a lavish bed blanket covering her. Many of the other images of “la Virgen de la Cama” are also covered with such a bed blanket. With almost all the Hispanic images of Mary in her Transitus, her head rests upon one or more pillows.
In Portugal, this repose of Mary asleep in death is often portrayed by the placement of such a statue on a funeral bier in the shape of a small boat. The Portuguese most commonly refer to these images of Mary as “Our Lady of the Good Death” (Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte). In the Portuguese Cathedral of Coimbra, which possesses an image of Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte dating from 1723, the statue is enshrined upon a miniature canoe-shaped funerary barge. An old lithograph, most probably dating from the nineteenth century, elucidates the mysterious symbolism of this barge for the virginal body of Our Lady. Here we see the barge navigating a tranquil sea, its hull portrayed as having the features of a large galleon, with an angel on its prow bearing a pendant with the monogram “VM,” to signify “Virgo Maria.”
The sides of the vessel are carved with Marian symbols taken from the Litany of Loreto, including the mystical rose and the Tower of David. Our Lady is clothed like a queen, with flowers scattered over her gown and the fringes of her mantle overhanging the sides of the ship, her head wreathed with blossoms. From the stern of the vessel flies a flag bearing the same “VM” monogram as the pendant on the prow. Hovering in the sky above the vessel is the Holy Spirit, portrayed as a dove, with a banderole running from its beak downward to the haloed face of Our Lady, bearing a nuptial invitation evocative of the Song of Solomon, “Veni sponsa mea,” “Come, my spouse” (see Song 2:10).
What might be the reason for the nautical imagery in this representation of the Transitus of Our Lady? It seems to me that the passage of this funeral vessel across a tranquil sea symbolizes the calm and peaceful passage of Mary from time into eternity, from the sorrows of Earth to the blissful shores of Heaven.

The Eternal Beatific Vision

When it comes to Our Lady’s entrance into Heaven, it is the two-dimensional medium of the painted canvas or fresco that best captures the utter jubilation of this event. Most late medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque artists depict Our Lady at this moment as in the fullest blossom of youth, even rendering her as a teenage girl, her face charged with rapturous bliss, stretching forth and even flaying out her arms to reach for the glory of Heaven and the anticipated embrace of her Divine Son awaiting her at Heaven’s portal.
For the Assumption at its climax constitutes one of the very happiest moments in the history of creation and salvation, the reward of the most perfect of all disciples of Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, with the eternal beatific vision of her God and Son for all eternity. Hence it should be seen as one of the most joyful moments in the entire liturgical year of the Church here on Earth.

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