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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Ferragosto: Taking off, the Virgin Mary taken up

In the best tradition of my ancestors' homeland, I took a much deserved break from blogging yesterday. In Italy, August 15th, better known as Ferragosto, is a national holiday. If you ever happen to visit one of the country's big cities on that date, you'll find most of the shops and restaurants closed and the locals off to the mountains or seaside for vacation. The tourists outnumber the residents, and an almost eerie quiet descends on the usually bustling towns.

The abandonment of diurnal activity is very fitting considering the occasion the fest marks. August 15th is also the Roman Catholic holy day that celebrates the Assumption — when the Virgin Mary was taken body and soul up to heaven.

I've made several trips to the "old country," and if you take the time to visit the churches and museums that shelter great art across the nation, you'll surely witness many depictions of the Virgin Mary. There are hundreds of paintings and sculptures that show her beatifically cradling the baby Jesus in her arms, and a good number of artists have also interpreted the moment of her Assumption into heaven.

One of the most famous of these latter paintings is Titian's masterpiece, The Assumption of the Virgin (shown above), which graces the altarpiece of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. I had the opportunity to view its three-tiered design in person, and it is much more impressive than the facsimile of it you can view on a computer screen. Mary hangs between heaven and earth, captured mid-journey, as the throng reacts to her loss. It's an interesting visual treatment of the contradiction between her divine and earthly natures, and it's a juxtaposition that's even more intresting when considering the pagan origins of Ferragosto.

The feast has pre-Christian roots in the Roman holiday of Feriae Augusti where those empirical polytheists most prominently celebrated their virgin goddess, Diana, as well as the natural cycles of fertility and maturity. Diana, the Roman version of the Greeks' Artemis, was both the goddess associated with forests, nature and the hunt and the deity invoked to aid in conception and childbirth. She was the protector of women and probably an amalgam of various earth goddess figures.

I don't want to start sounding like The Da Vinci Code's Dan Brown, but the fact that the Mary the Christian religious icon assumed several characteristics of the pagan goddess with whom she shares a holiday certainly starts one to head scratching. As religious doctrine took shape, it's not hard to imagine the personality of the historical figure of Mary receding to be replaced by the more worshipful traits of a deity. In that sense, the holiday may mark a metaphorical assumption of Mary as well as a physical one.

Two millennia after she lived, it's impossible to know what Mary the woman was truly like beyond the obvious generalities. I'm sure she was a protector and font of strength, who nurtured a child to make his way in a troubled world. No doubt she was wracked by the same emotions, pain and worries every mother feels as she watches the life she brought forth gradually taken away from her.

As her story was adopted by a growing Church it was necessarily taken from the historical realm into the mythic. A very mortal and womanly figure got transformed into a divine abstraction, assuming the nature of a goddess. As much as she may have gained upon reaching the realm of the heavenly, much was also lost. Equating Mary's story with virgin births and the cheating of death, the very human and natural rhythms of fertility and mortality were disrupted in the telling. It's not hard to see a connection between that diconnect and the Catholic Church's often problematic views toward women.
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