The Legend of the Death and Assumption of the Virgin Mary

Mary dwelt in the house of John upon Mount Sion, looking for the fulfilment of the promise of deliverance ; and she spent her days in visiting those places which had been hallowed by the baptism, the sufferings, the burial, and resurrection of her divine Son, but more particularly the tomb wherein he was laid. And she did not this as seeking the living among the dead, but for consolation and for remembrance.

And on a certain day, the heart of the Virgin, being filled with an inexpressible longing to behold her Son, melted away within her, and she wept abundantly. And, lo! an angel appeared before her clothed in light as with a garment. And he saluted her, and said, ” Hail, 0 Mary ! blessed by him who bath given salvation to Israel ! I bring thee here a branch of palm gathered in Paradise ; command that it be carried before thy bier in the day of thy death ; for in three days thy soul shall leave thy body, and thou shalt enter into Paradise, where thy Son awaits thy coming.” Mary, answering, said, ” If I have found grace in thy eyes, tell me first what is thy name ; and grant that the apostles my brethren may be reunited to me before I die, that in their presence I may give up my soul to God. Also, I pray thee, that my soul, when delivered from my body, may not be affrighted by any spirit of darkness, nor any evil angel be allowed to have any power over me.” And the angel said, “Why dost thou ask my name ? My name is the Great and the Wonderful. And now doubt not that all the apostles shall be reunited to thee this day ; for he who in former times transported the prophet Habakkuk from Judea to Jerusalem by the hair of his head, can as easily bring hither the apostles. And fear thou not the evil spirit, for hast thou not bruised his head and destroyed his kingdom ? ” And having said these words, the angel departed into heaven; and the palm branch which he had left behind him shed light from every leaf, and sparkled as the stars of the morning. Then Mary lighted the lamps and prepared her bed, and waited until the hour was come. And in the same instant John, who was preaching at Ephesus, and Peter, who was preaching at Antioch, and all the other apostles, who were dispersed in different parts of the world, were suddenly caught up as by a miraculous power, and found themselves before the door of the habitation of Mary. When Mary saw them all assembled round her, she blessed and thanked the Lord, and she placed in the hands of St. John the shining palm, and desired that he should bear it before her at the time of her burial. Then Mary, kneeling down, made her prayer to the Lord her Son, and the others prayed with her ; then she laid herself down in her bed and composed herself for death. And John wept bitterly. And about the third hour of the night, as Peter stood at the head of the bed and John at the foot, and the other apostles around, a mighty sound filled the house, and a delicious perfume filled the chamber. And Jesus himself appeared accompanied by an innumerable company of angels, patriarchs, and prophets ; all these surrounded the bed of the Virgin, singing hymns of joy. And Jesus said to his mother, “Arise, my beloved, mine elect ! come with me from Lebanon, my espoused ! receive the crown that is destined for thee ! ” And Mary, answering, said, “My heart is ready ; for it was written of me that I should do thy will !” Then all the angels and blessed spirits who accompanied Jesus began to sing and rejoice. And the soul of Mary left her body, and was received into the arms of her Son, and together they ascended into heaven) And the apostles looked up, saying, ” O most prudent Virgin, remember us when thou comest to glory ! ” and the angels who received her into heaven sang these words, “Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness leaning upon her Beloved ? she is fairer than all the daughters of Jerusalem.”

But the body of Mary remained upon the earth ; and three among the virgins prepared to wash and cloth it in a shroud ; but such a glory of light surrounded her form, that though they touched it they could not see it, and no human eye be-held those chaste and sacred limbs unclothed. Then the apostles took her up reverently and placed her upon a bier, and John, carrying the celestial palm, went before. Peter sang the 114th Psalm, “In exitu Israel de Egypto, domus Jacob de populo barbaro,” and the angels followed after, also singing. The wicked Jews, hearing these melodious voices, ran together ; and the high priest, being seized with fury, laid his hands upon the bier intending to overturn it on the earth ; but both his arms were suddenly dried up, so that he could not move them, and he was overcome with fear ; and he prayed to St. Peter for help, and Peter said, ” Have faith in Jesus Christ, and his Mother, and thou shalt be healed ; ” and it was so. Then they went on and laid the Virgin in a tomb in the Valley of Jehoshaphat.

And on the third day, Jesus said to the angels, “What honor shall I confer on her who was my mother on earth, and brought me forth ? ” And they answered, ” Lord, suffer not that body which was thy temple and thy dwelling to see corruption; but place her beside thee on thy throne in heaven.” And Jesus consented ; and the Archangel Michael brought unto the Lord the glorious soul of our Lady. And the Lord said, “Rise up, my dove, my undefiled, for thou shalt not remain in the darkness of the grave, nor shalt thou see corruption ; ” and immediately the soul of Mary rejoined her body, and she arose up glorious from the tomb, and ascended into heaven surrounded and welcomed by troops of angels, blowing their silver trumpets, touching their golden lutes, singing, and rejoicing as they sang, “Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners ? ” (Cant. vi. 10.)

But one among the apostles was absent ; and when he arrived, soon after, he would not believe in the resurrection of the Virgin ; and this apostle was the same Thomas who had formerly been slow to believe in the resurrection of the Lord ; and he desired that the tomb should be opened before him; and when it was opened it was found to be full of lilies and roses. Then Thomas, looking up to heaven, beheld the Virgin bodily, in a glory of light, slowly mounting towards heaven ; and she, for the assurance of his faith, flung down to him her girdle, the same which is to this day preserved in the cathedral at Prato. And there were present at the death of the Virgin Mary, besides the twelve apostles, Dionysius the Areopagite, Timotheus, and Hierotheus ; and of the women, Mary Salome, Mary Cleophas, and a faithful handmaid whose name was Savia.

This legend of the Death and Assumption of the Virgin has afforded to the artists seven distinct scenes.

1. The Angel, bearing the palm, announces to Mary her approaching Death. The announcing angel is usually supposed to be Gabriel, but it is properly Michael, ” the angel of death.” 2. She takes leave of the Apostles. 3. Her Death. 4. She is borne to the Sepulchre. 5. Her Entombment. 6. Her Assumption, where she rises triumphant and glorious, ” like unto the morning” (quasi aurora consurgens. 7. Her Coronation in heaven, where she takes her place beside her Son.

In early Art, particularly in the Gothic sculpture, two or more of these subjects are generally grouped together. Sometimes we have the death-scene and the entombment on a line below, and, above these, the coronation or the assumption, as over the portal of Notre Dame at Paris, and in many other instances ; or we have first her death, above this her assumption, and, above all, her coronation ; as over the portal at Amiens and elsewhere.

According to the French legend, Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha were also present.

I shall now take these subjects in their order.






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