This exquisite painting by Fra Angelico (1395/1400-1455) at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum shows the Assumption of the Virgin Mary — her ascent into heaven — immediately above a scene centered on her dead body.
The painting, in tempera on panel, has also been called “The Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin.” It’s a title I prefer because of the connotations of the word dormition: a peaceful and painless death, a descent into sleep.
Traditionally, the Virgin’s soul was understood to have left her body and been reunited with her son, whereupon it ascended triumphantly into heaven.
The Death and the Assumption of the Virgin by Fra Angelico
So, against the backdrop of a high wall, the scene below shows the Virgin’s body lying on a bier, itself resting on a catafalque, both of them covered in differently patterned gold cloths. Observe the way the cloth undulates over the handles of the bier: Stunning.
The Virgin is surrounded by holy figures, all men. Over on the left, St. Peter reads the office of the dead. At far right, meanwhile, St. John the Evangelist holds a palm. It’s the same palm with which the Virgin was presented by the angel Gabriel when she was first informed of her miraculous pregnancy — and of her son’s tragic but world-saving fate.
The figure in the center — the one with those gorgeously galactic decorations on his resplendent clothes — is that very son. (We see him again at the top of the picture, his face foreshortened and encircled by blue cherubs’ heads, his arms outstretched, waiting to take his cruelly tested mother up into the joyous bliss of heaven.)
Confusingly, as he stands below with the apostles, he cradles a baby. It’s a representation not of his infant self but of his mother’s soul. See how tenderly he holds it.
You could fall in love with different details in this painting every time you see it. But for me, it’s something specific, and instantly credible, about the psychology of the four men who bend to pick up the handles of the bier.
All four are at different stages of readiness for a task that requires that they all unite. The figure at front right, the readiest of all, gestures with his other hand at the handle diagonally opposite, which is still vacant. Responding, the older man with gray hair — emerging, perhaps, from private, doom-laden thoughts — pulls up a sleeve and gets to it.
The whole scene is painted with a degree of naturalism that was extraordinary for its time (around 1433-34). Scholars have hailed it as one of the most original and complex of this great artist’s later works.
Still, with its abundance of gold leaf and elaborate, decorated frame, splitting at the top, it is just as much an object — a fragile, almost 600-year-old thing — as a convincing illusion. The tension between the two states, illusory visions and obstinate reality, seems to bear, somehow, on tensions inherent in the very theology it asks us to believe. God, the Son, word made flesh, life after death: How literally are we to take all this?