Eve and Mary: These two women have played pivotal roles in the destiny of the human race. Their power transcends that of the most powerful men in history. Pharaohs, emperors, kings, Wall Street whizzes, tech giants—none of them compare with these two women.
Our lives, our futures, depend on these two women. The first, Eve, has been consigned to the realm of myth, out of the reach of the real. But to know how very real this woman was and how very real her stamp on the whole human race, one should go to the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence and look at the Masaccio frescoes there. There, in an unforgettable depiction, is this woman. Her face, once seen, is never forgotten. Her eyes are empty sockets; they are black. And on her face is a grief as deep as the universe. Compared to this grief, the grief of the great tragic heroines—Medea, Antigone, Clytemnestra, Iocasta—is nothing. This woman’s grief envelops all of creation, for it is her act of disobedience that banished her and the man, he who fell no less easily, he who Masaccio shows walking beside her in dazed apprehension of what lies beyond the paradise of Eden. What leaps out of Masaccio’s fresco is Eve's horror at the darkness before her. For what Eve saw in the blackness of her sight was not only pain and anxiety and loneliness and division—she saw death. And she wept the tears of all creation.
As for the second woman, one of the most powerful depictions of her is Titian's painting in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. You enter the church by the side, one of the transepts. You advance to the opening in the choir screen that separates the nave from the choir of the friars and the sanctuary and high altar. But you pause, and you must pause. For what is seen in that opening cannot be approached casually, cannot be looked at as if you were looking at just one painting over the high altar in an Italian church. And so you walk slowly, and through the opening in the screen you see a painting that will always knock the breath out of you, no matter how many times you see it. While there was darkness in the Masaccio fresco, and unending grief, here there is light, a light that seems to come out of the painting itself. In it we see Mary's Assumption into heaven.
The light comes from above. The Masaccio fresco showed no light source from the sky, but here the light is intense, and it envelops the woman. There are the little angels, the putti, gently guiding the woman in her ascent to the light, in the light. The apostles look up, amazed and yet not surprised, for what else could be expected for the one who as an immaculate virgin bore God in the flesh—what else could be expected than that she would be borne into heaven in her totality as a woman. No disembodied soul this. No, this is the woman, clothed in a red so distinctive, so compelling, that it bears the name of its creator, Titian red. As she looks up, she is anticipating the fullness of life, for she knows the love of her son, the love of God that draws her up. There is no false, sentimental piety here. Her face is open to the light that suffuses her, the light that came into the world though the world knew it not—for the world sees with the eyes of the first woman, with eye sockets that are black, void.
It is in this woman full of grace that we see the destiny of those who do see this light. For as the first woman caused the gates of heaven to be shut, so this woman not only opens those gates, but makes the possibility of heaven real for all who are flesh and blood.
While it is true that Mary’s Assumption into heaven is a singular privilege, her being in heaven body and soul is what we hope for ourselves. For we look forward to the resurrection of the body on the last day, the fruit of our redemption in Jesus Christ who died on the cross and who rose again on the third day not as a ghost, but as the person of Jesus Christ, whose body was no longer subject to the corruption of death but destined to live forever in the glory of God. What Mary is today in heaven is what is our sure hope for ourselves, a sure hope founded on faith in Jesus Christ, whose will is that all shall live.
Richard Cipolla is a priest of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
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