A message from Father Nick 22, 16th August 2020
Jacopo Torriti, coronation of the virgin, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome
Our Lady and the Kingdom to come …
One of the great themes of religious art is the dormition – literally “falling asleep” – of Our Lady at the end of her life, surrounded by the remaining apostles. Our old friend Caravaggio painted the scene and found himself once more in trouble for his choice of model and the dirty soles of her feet. A more reverential wood-carving from the late Middle Ages can be found in Llandaff cathedral.
Some have argued that Our Lady never died at all – that instead she was taken up to heaven while still alive, though it is difficult to imagine she would not have shared her Son’s experience of human death. But, however she departed this world, we might well ask, where did it actually happen? Jerusalem has an ancient claim, marking its spot by the Church of the Dormition on the highest point of Mount Zion.
Yet Jerusalem is not the only claimant. According to another ancient tradition, St John honoured the dying words of his Master by taking Our Lady to Ephesus in Asia Minor, where she spent the remaining years of her earthly life. Tourists to Ephesus, in modern Turkey, will still be offered a visit to the “Meryemana Evi”, the house where Our Lady is said to have lived. Muslims too make it a place of pilgrimage.
This tradition seems to have influenced the holding of a third great Council of the Church in Ephesus. Constantine had promoted the first such council in Nicea in 325 AD, and a second council followed in Constantinople in 381. These two councils, summoned to address early heresies, provide us with the Creed we say on Sundays. In the 5th century however, the Church was forced to face a new problem: the claim that Christ was not divine at birth but rather had divinity conferred on him as an adult – a kind of divine possession. A new Council was called in Ephesus in 431 to resolve the matter.
The assembled bishops did so by making a statement about Mary. She was to be called THEOTOKOS in Greek (DEIPARA in Latin – we say MOTHER OF GOD). This was not to make her the centre of our faith but to defend the centrality of her son, who was also God’s true Son. Of course, after the council devotion to Our Lady increased and many churches were dedicated to her.
The first of these was the lovely basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (St Mary Major) in Rome, erected on the Esquiline hill by Pope Sixtus III between 432 and 440 AD. St Mary Major is especially loved among the great Roman churches.
Its thirteenth century apse mosaic contains a beautiful image, which “departs from the great Roman (and Eastern) tradition of showing Christ alone as Ruler and Teacher. Here he is with Mary his Mother, crowning her and sharing his throne with her. They are surrounded by a great blue orb, representing the universe, filled with stars and sun and moon.”
That image, like this feast of the Assumption, brings our own story to completion. Christian art begins with Our Lord’s Incarnation, where Christ is welcomed into the world by his mother, who represents all of us. When his mission is completed, he ascends into glory – and now it is he who welcomes his mother, still representing all of us, into the final glory of heaven.