Sunday, August 16, 2009

Assumption of Mary

Yesterday, August 15, is the traditional date for the Assumption, a celebration of the Chrisian belief in Mary's assumption to heaven after her death. I am reminded that I arrived in Vienna last year on this date -- Maria Himmelfahrt -- when every shop in town appeared to be closed. The feast day gives me an opportunity to feature the only kind of painting I was familiar with as a child.

I grew up in "Middle America." There were not many frills in the Catholic school I attended, and one of my middling accomplishments was in penmanship. Even as late as the 6th grade, we spent inordinate amounts of time on exercises for increasing hand and wrist flexibility and stroke regularity -- row after row of diagonals and connected "O"s -- which also served the purpose of keeping classrooms of fifty and sixty pupils busy and quiet.

The culmination of all our practice was the compilation of a book of saints' biographies. First, Sister Eugene Maria dictated a passage, which we wrote out in pencil, concerning, say, the life of an early martyr, each of whom was a model of behavior and, in the case of Catherine of Alexandria, of prodigious educational achievement.

Afterward we went back and corrected our dictation and, only when every imperfection of grammar and spelling had been expunged was it transferred, neatly, to a special notebook. Each page was devoted to a single saint and would be accompanied by a Murillo-like reproduction of the saint, one expressing exaltation and devotion in a sea of Baroque blues and reds. We literally devoted weeks on this exercise, and the book by one of my friends, Judy, a small work of art, indicated the achievements that could be nurtured in nine- and ten-year-old girls who otherwise had no intellectual models.

How I loved those nuns, and how much I owe to them! I certainly was able to recognize all the religious imagery when I finally went to my first museum, at the age of 18. That was in Paris, and naturally, having waited to so long to see "real" art, I went to one of the best, the Louvre. More on that on another occasion.

The Assumption continues to be of interest to artists, as can be seen in this painting by Brigid Marlin.

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