Assumption of the Virgin, 18th century; unknown Mexican artist (Philadelphia Art Museum)
AMERICAN art museums possess tens of thousands of paintings and statues of the Virgin Mary. Isn’t it odd? Museums aren’t churches. Why are these religious images there?
They are there because of their undeniable beauty. Even in our de-supernaturalized world, where the idea that a real woman could become the “Mother of God” is inconceivable and even laughable to many people who think they are attuned to reality because they believe in sheer matter alone, even in this world, no one, absolutely no one, seriously challenges the inclusion of these works in the canon of masterpieces. Such nobility and virtue, tenderness and maternal devotion, such supreme feminine beauty, shine forth from these cherished images. Mary was the most beautiful woman. She is the most beautiful woman. She is full of grace, in the way a spectacular garden is full of blossom, seed and leaf. Artists cannot ever exhaust the subject of Mary’s beauty. It is impossible. If every artist in the entire world were to devote his life to depicting Mary (admittedly an absurd thought in a world where artists devote themselves to depicting ugliness), they together could not sufficiently capture her, such is the nature of her perfection and the profundity of her beauty.
Never do we see Mary smiling in an extroverted way. Her gaze is usually averted. She is always in a state of contemplation. It is true: Her soul magnified the Lord.
If these paintings were all suddenly taken away, our museums would be profoundly altered and people would notice the absence even though they may be only vaguely or unconsciously aware of that presence, it being a singular characteristic of the Mother of God in that she has a hidden quality, an invisibility that is a reflection of her humility. She is humble and yet she is the woman marked out from all of history to be the valiant defender of mankind. She is the woman destined to crush the serpent’s head.
Catholics observe many specials feasts of the Mother of God, but today, the Feast of the Assumption, is the most important. It marks the day when Mary was assumed into heaven and crowned Queen, a dogma which was defined after many centuries of belief in 1950 by Pope Pius XII. According to a tradition that dated back to the time of the apostles, Christians believed that Mary was assumed — body and soul — into heaven not many years after the death of Christ. The angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her the details of her departure from this world. She answered with the words she had spoken to him many years before:
Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.
Mary’s role in human history and in the supernatural order has been defined over time.
O happy day which raised up and so highly exalted this most humble handmaiden of the Lord that she might become the most glorious queen of heaven and the mistress of the world. Indeed she could not have risen to more sublime heights since she had been elevated to the very Throne of the heavenly kingdom, and thus was established in glory next after Christ. O happy and truly honorable is this day which constituted and confirmed for us a Queen and Mother who is at once powerful and merciful in the kingdom of God, that we might have her, who ever remains the Mother of the Judge, as a Mother of mercy protecting us and interceding for us with Christ, unceasingly watching over the work of our salvation. [Homily of St. Peter Canisius.]
The Mother who will never fail us, who loves us with such exquisite compassion, may give us a taste of that refined humility we see in those glorious paintings. If we ask her, she may let a particle of her perfection fall from heaven where she is ever Queen and lodge in our own souls, making us better than we are by helping us forget our intense self-love.