As we celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we reflect on the wonder of Mary’s assumption, body and soul into heavenly glory. Mary’s assumption opens a graced path for our sanctification now on earth, giving us hope of sharing in the glory of her resurrected son, Jesus. For no creature on earth was more closely united to Jesus than His mother, Mary. The Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary points to the renewal of our bodies and minds, and our yearning for peace and union with God, who desires our friendship.
At the Basilica, two exquisite mosaics that provide visual catechesis of this solemnity are in the Great Upper Church, where pilgrims celebrate the life and faith of their spiritual mother, Mary, in the liturgy throughout the year.
The Assumption of Mary Chapel
In the alcove directly below the magnificent Christ in Majesty mosaic are five altar chapels dedicated to the Glorious Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. The fourth Glorious Mystery, the Assumption of Mary, depicts the moment God assumed Mary into heaven because she was the pure, sinless mother of His divine son, Jesus. Against a luminous gold background studded with crosses enclosed in diamond-shaped medallions, Mary is clothed in a pure white garment of many folds that wrap around her delicate frame. Her entire body is encircled in a mandorla, or almond shaped halo, indicating the glorification of her body.
Beneath her feet is a crescent moon placed over a tree of life, firmly set in a square marble planter, indicating the victory of the mother of divine life over time and space. Mary’s haloed head bows deeply before the marvelous work of God as she reaches her right hand out to heaven. From the top of the mosaic, the hand of God, encircled in a cross, emerges from the heavens to draw Mary upward, evoking the Latin word assumere, which means to “take one to oneself.” Three disciples look up in awe and wonder at this marvelous work of God as Mary’s earthly life draws to a close.
An Old Testament scene below draws a biblical parallel between the Assumption of Mary and the spiritual yearnings of the Israelites. We see them carrying the Ark of the Covenant that contained the Ten Commandments and was revered as the dwelling of God with His chosen people. Mary is the “new ark of the covenant” for in her, God first came to dwell with the human race. Between the two biblical moments are praises to Mary in words from the Song of Solomon, “Who is she coming forth as the rising dawn,” (Song of Solomon 6: 9-10).
The Assumption Mosaic
Another place the Basilica honors this Marian solemnity is in the rare, exquisite mosaic of the Assumption of Mary at the entrance to the Great Upper Church sacristy. The original image was created by the 16th century Venetian master painter, Tiziano Vecelli, known as Titian. We see Mary being assumed to heaven with her eyes and hands raised in joyful praise to God, clothed in robes of red and blue – colors that signify the divinity and humanity of her divine son Jesus. A host of haloed angels lend movement to the scene by carrying the Blessed Virgin Mary to her heavenly union with God. These angelic hosts highlight that this sacred moment is a work of God, not of human hands and beyond human imagination. The uneven mosaic tiles reflect brilliant light, inviting our gaze on the mystery of this graced moment in Mary’s life.
It was Pope Pius XII who commissioned this mosaic copy of Titian’s masterpiece for the National Shrine. In 1950, Pope Pius XII formally defined Catholic belief in the Assumption of Mary in his Apostolic Letter, Munificentissimus Deus. Two years after his election to the papacy in October 1958, Pope John XXIII gifted the finished mosaic to the National Shrine in 1960.
What the Assumption Means for Us
In her assumption, Mary desires our spiritual regeneration, our rising to new life in her son Jesus. For as the Catechism notes, “The most Blessed Virgin Mary, when the course of her earthly life was completed, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven, where she already shares in the glory of her Son’s Resurrection, anticipating the resurrection of all members of his Body,” (Catechism, 974).
To celebrate God’s loving work of assuming Mary into the divine family of the Blessed Trinity, the saints, and the angels is a treasure of faith. For Mary invites us, her spiritual children, to nothing less than a share in God’s marvelous work in heaven as we sing her praises on earth.
About Dr. Jem Sullivan
Dr. Jem Sullivan, Ph.D. is associate professor in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. She is an appointed member of the International Council for Catechesis in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Evangelization in Rome. Over three decades, she has served the Church at the national and diocesan levels, and has taught seminarians, undergraduate and graduate students. Dr. Sullivan is the author of four books including The Beauty of Faith: Christian Art and the Good News and Believe, Celebrate, Live, Pray: A Weekly Retreat with the Catechism. She writes art essays for Magnificat and is a guest commentator for USCCB’s Scripture reflections. Jem has hosted two EWTN television documentaries on the arts and evangelization, and used to serve as a volunteer docent at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., where she led tours of the museum’s masterpiece collections. Jem resides in Maryland with her family and is a parishioner at Saint Mark’s Catholic Church.