A reflection on the theologies of East and West through sacred art
Marian themes have been a major subject of sacred art for centuries. Exquisite artworks revealing intricate Mariology have flourished alongside scholarly theological texts throughout the ages. One such theme is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a religious feast celebrated on 15 August in both the Roman and Byzantine Rites.
In the Western tradition the Assumption has been a subject of sacred art since writings as earlier as the fifth century bore witness to the Church's early belief in Mary's body being assumed into heaven after her earthly life. The Eastern Fathers considered another tradition closely associated with the West which taught that Mary, being free from sin and death, at the end of her earthly life simply went to sleep and was taken up into heaven. This latter tradition was known as Dormitio Mariae — the "Dormition" or "Falling Asleep" (Greek koimesis) of the Virgin. In the religious art of the West it was commonly called the Death of the Virgin, a familiar subject which draws on Byzantine models until the end of the Middle Ages. Subsequently the doctrine of Maria Assumpta (Mary's Assumption) gained headway in the West while the Dormition remained the principal theme in the East. Today the iconography of each tradition reflects how the Church has integrated its teaching on Mary's Assumption to create a force shaping the development of Mariology in the arts throughout the centuries.
Despite early theological discussion on the status of Mary's corporeal finality the doctrine of her Assumption into Heaven was not defined de fide until 1950. The Church gradually moved towards that time when Pope Pius XII judged it fitting to: "pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory" (Munificentissimus Deus, n. 44).
Centuries before this proclamation, however, the Church's teaching on Mary's Assumption was already portrayed in splendid artworks. While the West speculated on her Assumption, the East continued to commemorate the Dormition. Among the finest artistic expressions to reveal the theological distinctiveness between these two traditions are Raphael's Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin (1502-4) and Theophanes the Greek's Icon of the Dormition ( 1392). While Raphael's work reflects the theological depth of the West, Theophanes' icon represents the liturgical richness of the East; for it was customary that while Western art expressed the doctrine, Eastern iconography celebrated the liturgical feast. Consequently, there are notable iconographic differences that result primarily from the uniqueness of each style, however a comparison of these two styles reveals how the pictorial theology of this subject is more comprehensive than any one theme alone.
Raphael's masterwork, an altarpiece painted for the Oddi family chapel in the church of San Francesco al Prato in Perugia, depicts Western Mariology in a profoundly judicious pictorial medium. It affords a theological elaboration of the mystery of Mary's death and bodily Assumption culminating in her Coronation as Queen of Heaven and Earth. Narrative images of Mary's Transitus (a non-canonical account of the fifth century regarding Mary's temporal finality) are sometimes part of compositions that integrate the Assumption and the Coronation as the apex of her glorification.
Regarding Raphael's masterpiece, the manner in which the artist from Urbino has captured the theological significance of Mary's bodily assumption is extraordinary. The delicate refinement of beauty in her face extols the holiness of one who is "full of grace". Beyond the power of any discursive narrative, or any other pictorial witness, Raphael's work has challenged the Creator's own art and the Church's rational discourse with a purity and majesty in figurative language able to grasp the resplendent nuances of the most discriminating theological expression. Following the West's more sympathetic approach to the human sentiment of Mary's corporeality, Raphael portrays the softness of her flesh, the youthfulness of her countenance and the weight of her living body assumed in flesh and spirit. There is an atmospheric background depicted by the naturalistic setting in which the Apostles stand gathered around the empty tomb filled with flowers (lower scene), while angels flutter their wings and play musical instruments (upper scene). The flowers in the tomb convey the idea of the triumph of life over death, of the non-corruption of the body, a sign that determines the extraordinary holiness of Mary's flesh which is metaphysically reunited to her soul and assumed into heaven by God.
Raphael depicts Mary sitting not in the center of the painting, nor even in full-face as the Eastern tradition would demand, but adjacent to her Son who raises one hand in blessing as he crowns his mother with the other hand. The radiant beauty in their faces is astounding while the symmetry between them alludes to each one's unique role in Salvation History — Christ as Redeemer and Mary as Co-Redemptrix. Here Raphael has realized the most poetical pictorial theology imaginable.
Theophanes' icon depicts the Dormition of the Virgin by presenting the Eastern Church's elaboration of the "falling asleep" or "death" of the Mother of God (Theotokos, "God-Bearer"). The Greek master has captured Eastern theology's belief in the Assumption by depicting Mary's body reclining on a bier attended by the Apostles. Her soul, signified by a child-like figure in white swaddling clothes, sits up in the hands of Christ who is holding it not in a mother-like fashion, but as if he were presenting it to the Apostles and the observer alike. In effect Christ is showing humankind the path to sanctity through purity and prayer. As the prayers of the Eastern Rite recall the Assumption of the Virgin, for "the tomb and death were not able to hold in sleep the Mother of God", Theophanes' icon becomes a channel of divine grace, a testimony to Eastern Marian doctrine by illustrating the importance of the Theotokos in the economy of salvation. A candle
burns in the foreground, a common motif in Dormition paintings, recalling the funeral scene as the artist reveals the Transitus Mariae.
In essence Eastern Mariology is more sympathetic to the sentiment of Mary's divinization, to her elevated status as Theotokos. Thus Dormition images signify Christ who is glorified in her. It is Mary "in the image of God", transfigured "into his likeness" and "recapitulated in Christ". This tradition demands that Mary's body is the central of the scene in relation to her Son, whereas the Western tradition sees her in relation to the Ecclesial Community. Thus in depictions of the Assumption Mary is glorified as Mother of the Church (Mater Ecclesiae) whereas in the Dormition she is venerated as Theotokos. The East therefore develops the latter tradition while the West recognizes in her Assumption the Mother of the all the faithful.
The symbolism of color plays an important role in each of these Marian themes. As red represents divine life and blue presents human life, Mary often wears a blue undergarment with a red outer garment to depict that the human has been rendered divine life by God. In the West blue is favored as the Mariological color as it represents Mary's humanity. This color is associated with the Western idea of Mary's bodily assumption whereas red is associated with Mary to portray that she is already in heaven, divinized — more common to the Eastern tradition. Thus the Eastern doctrine of deification and the Western tradition of the Immaculate Conception are conveyed.
Symbolically, both Raphael's and Theophanes' paintings reveal the texture of the spiritual veiling the corporeal body of the Mother of Jesus, and the corporeal embodying her spirit. Much more then mere artworks, they are part of the fabric of Catholic Mariology, pieces of theology, providing the advantages of a visual medium's insight into the profound mystery of Marian doctrine, to understand without didactic analysis the ultimate state of human life, the meaning of life beyond the grave, the significance of corporeal assumption, and the eschatological glory promised to all.
In the end one might conclude that Raphael and Theophanes, who have represented with such artistic finesse the mystery of Mary's Assumption, have fallen little short of arriving among the finest theologians. For it would seem impossible that they could render this imagery with such theological precision, so profoundly tasteful and attractively legible, without an acute understanding or the grace of its existential realty. These unique artworks relocate Mary firmly amongst the greatest of all iconographic subjects and extol her role in salvation history as Co-Redemptrix.
Raphael and Theophanes have presented the grandeur of Mary's own Magnificat: "He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones, but lifted up the lowly" (Lk 1:52), for in both of these artworks Mary's honor is linked directly to that of her Son, thus both Raphael and Theophanes have "magnified the Lord" through honoring His Mother, she who is, in the words of the Church Fathers, Theotokos. In this end sum of Marian theology is both her Assumption and Dormition celebrated.