1st November 2010 (All Saints Day) marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Definition of the Dogma of the Assumption of Mary by Pope Pius XII
Here is a photograph of the ceremony of the definition of the Dogma in St Peter`s Square on 1st November 1950:
The Definition was proclaimed in a three day ceremony.
Below is the gathering of 37 cardinals and more than 600 patriarchs, archbishops and bishops joining Pius XII in a Pontifical Mass at the closing rite of the three day ceremony. Until Vatican II, it was one of the largest gatherings of the Church`s hierarchy in all history.
The ceremony was one of the high points of the Holy Year (1950)
However the declaration was not without its opponents both within and without the Church
In Northern Europe, the Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury and York both declared themselves against the declaration and warned that it would widen the separation between the Churches.
Rather bizarrely Carl G Jung declared the definition as the most important event since the Reformation and praised its profound significance for the human psyche of completing a "Quadernity by exalting female flesh iinto the highest heavens, otherwise reserved to the male flesh of the ascended Jesus and the spiritual but putatively male remainder of the Blessed Trinity"
At the time and afterwards, some commentators and historians described it as "the peak of Papal absolutism" Perhaps as a result of this some commentators felt that Vatican II under-emphasised devotion to Mary as a result of which Pope Paul VI had to work hard to foster such devotion again.
The definition is contained within Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, n. 40, 1950
In essence, it provides that Mary, like Christ her Son, overcame death and is already triumphant in heavenly glory, in the totality of her being, "in body and soul".
One of the problems regarding acceptance of the Dogmas is its apparent "lack of pedigree" as well as apparent lack of scriptural warrant
Some appear to think that Pope Pius XII simply conjured the Dogma out of thin air. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Bull Munificentissimus Deus goes into some detail about the history of the Assumption.
Pope John Paul II on 2nd July 1997 once expostulated at a General Audience:
"How can we not see that the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin has always been part of the faith of the Christian people who, by affirming Mary’s entrance into heavenly glory, have meant to proclaim the glorification of her body?
The first trace of belief in the Virgin's Assumption can be found in the apocryphal accounts entitled Transitus Mariae, whose origin dates to the second and third centuries. These are popular and sometimes romanticized depictions, which in this case, however, pick up an intuition of faith on the part of God's People.
Later, there was a long period of growing reflection on Mary’s destiny in the next world. This gradually led the faithful to believe in the glorious raising of the Mother of Jesus, in body and soul, and to the institution in the East of the liturgical feasts of the Dormition and Assumption of Mary.
Belief in the glorious destiny of the body and soul of the Lord's Mother after her death spread very rapidly from East to West, and has been widespread since the 14th century. In our century, on the eve of the definition of the dogma it was a truth almost universally accepted and professed by the Christian community in every corner of the world....
Therefore in May 1946, with the Encyclical Deiparae Virginis Mariae, Pius XII called for a broad consultation, inquiring among the Bishops and, through them, among the clergy and the People of God as to the possibility and opportuneness of defining the bodily assumption of Mary as a dogma of faith. The result was extremely positive: only six answers out of 1,181 showed any reservations about the revealed character of this truth."
The Bull itself also recalled the scriptural basis of the Dogma.
It may surprise some to realise that the Sistine Chapel (one of the most important chapels in the life and history of the Church) which takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere (pontiff from 1471 to 1484) was consecrated on 15 August 1483 by him and dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption.
The central altarpiece was originally a fresco by Perugino of Our Lady of the Assumption. The chapel was remodelled and redecorated under Pope Julius II (nephew of Sixtus IV). On the completion of the Ceiling in October 1512, Julius II reinaugurated the chapel on the Feast of All Saints (1 November), and confirmed the dedication of the Chapel to Our Lady of the Assumption.
Towards the end of 1533 Clement VII de' Medici (pontiff from 1523 to 1534) (and his successor Paul III) gave Michelangelo the task of further altering the decoration of the Sistine Chapel by painting the Last Judgment on the altar wall.
Clement VII had wished to commemorate in this way the tragic events of the year 1527, the sack of Rome. This caused the loss of the altar-piece of the Virgin assumed among the Apostles and the first two episodes of the Stories of Moses and of Christ, again painted by Perugino.
Neither Clement VII nor Paul III wanted to lessen the importance of the original Assunta. It would appear that Clement VII had asked Michelangelo to work round Perugino`s altar piece and Michelangelo had produced sketches to show how this could be done. Paul III commissioned a tapestry of the Assumption and this tapestry of the Assumption was used when the Sistine Chapel was used for special ceremonies up to the 18th century.
In the Last Judgment itself, Mary in physical human form is among the people of Heaven touching Christ and within his mandorla. The reference is clearly to Mary having been assumed and her subsequent coronation. See below
The image reminds us of Apocalypse 12:1 where the woman "robed with the sun" and "beneath her feet the moon" and Apocalypse 12:14 where the woman flies to the place out of reach of the serpent. Both passages have been used to defend the belief in the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption since the fourth century.
Such an interpretation is even more evident from Michelangelo`s preparatory sketches.
One of the few records which we have of what the fresco by Perugino looked like is a sketch by a pupil of Pinturicchio below:
Pupil of Pinturiccio's school from 1481
Assumption of Mary with Pope Sixtus IV
Drawing of Perugino's destroyed fresco in Sistine Chapel.
The Albertina, Vienna
Here is the detail of Mary and Christ from the Last Judgment:
Michelangelo (6 March 1475 – 18 February 1564),
The Last Judgment 1537-1541
Dimensions 1370 cm × 1200 cm (539.3 in × 472.4 in)
The Sistine Chapel, Vatican City
In his Homily on Sunday 15th August 2010, Pope Benedict XVI went into some detail with an explanation of the Assumption
"[W]e believe that Mary, like Christ her Son, overcame death and is already triumphant in heavenly glory, in the totality of her being, "in body and soul".
In today's Second Reading St Paul helps us to shed a little more light on this mystery starting from the central event of human history and of our faith: that is, the event of Christ's Resurrection which is "the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep".
Immersed in his Paschal Mystery, we are enabled to share in his victory over sin and death. Here lies the startling secret and key reality of the whole human saga.
St Paul tells us that we are "incorporated" Adam, the first man and the old man, that we all possess the same human heritage to which belong suffering, death and sin. But every day adds something new to this reality that we can all see and live: not only are we part of this heritage of the one human being that began with Adam but we are also "incorporated" in the new man, in the Risen Christ, and thus the life of the Resurrection is already present in us.
Therefore this first biological "incorporation" is incorporation into death, it is an incorporation that generates death. The second, new "incorporation", that is given to us in Baptism is an "incorporation" that gives life.
Again, I cite today's Second Reading: St Paul says: "For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the first fruits, then at his coming, those who belong to Christ" (1 Cor 15: 21-24).
Now, what St Paul says of all human beings the Church in her infallible Magisterium says of Mary in a precise and clear manner: the Mother of God is so deeply integrated into Christ's Mystery that at the end of her earthly life she already participates with her whole self in her Son's Resurrection. She lives what we await at the end of time when the "last enemy" death will have been destroyed (cf. 1 Cor 15: 26); she already lives what we proclaim in the Creed: "We look for the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come".
We can then ask ourselves: what are the roots of this victory over death wonderfully anticipated in Mary?
Its roots are in the faith of the Virgin of Nazareth, as the Gospel passage we have heard testifies (Lk 1: 39-56): a faith that is obedience to the word of God and total abandonment to the divine action and initiative, in accordance with what the Archangel announced to her.
Faith, therefore, is Mary's greatness, as Elizabeth joyfully proclaims: Mary is "blessed among women" and "blessed is the fruit of [her] womb", for she is Mother of the Lord" because she believed and lived uniquely the "first" of the Beatitudes, the Beatitude of faith. Elizabeth confesses it in her joy and in that of her child who leaps in her womb: "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord" (v. 45).
Dear friends, let us not limit ourselves to admiring Mary in her destiny of glory, as a person very remote from us. No! We are called to look at all that the Lord, in his love, wanted to do for us too, for our final destiny: to live through faith in a perfect communion of love with him and hence to live truly."
That is in fact what Michelangelo has depicted in The Last Judgment when he depicted Mary: Mary "triumphant in heavenly glory, in the totality of her being, "in body and soul""
And when the thousands of visitors to the Chapel troup through the Chapel to see one of the great works of Western civilisation, they are doing so in a chapel which has been dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin for centuries and that they are gazing in awe at a painting whose centrepiece is, amongst other things, a celebration of the Assumption of the Virgin.