The “Assumption of the Virgin Mary” by Peter Paul Rubens, 1626. Painting is an altarpiece for the high alter of the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium. This is one of three different paintings of the Assumption that Rubens produced.
According to Wikipedia: In Rubens’ depiction of the Assumption of Mary, a choir of angels lifts her in a spiraling motion toward a burst of divine light. Around her tomb are gathered the 12 apostles — some with their arms raised in awe; others reaching to touch her discarded shroud. The women in the painting are thought to be Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary’s two sisters. A kneeling woman holds a flower, referring to the lilies that miraculously filled the empty coffin.
The feast of the Assumption in the Western Liturgical calendar is celebrated every fifteenth of August. In the Eastern Liturgical calendar, the feast of the “Dormition” is celebrated on this day. The celebration of the feast can be traced back to the fifth century but with various dates. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the feast has a double object. The first being the “happy departure of Mary from this life.” Second, her bodily assumption into heaven.
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin has long been held as an orthodox teaching of the Church. However, it wasn’t until the first of November in 1950 that Pope Pius XII issued “Munificentissimus Deus” an ex cathedra Apostolic Constitution defining the Assumption as dogma.
By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we 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.
Pope Pius XII in his words “having completed the course of her earthly life” leaves the question open to whether Mary did indeed die before her Assumption or not. The Church Fathers, as Pope Pius XII states below, taught that she did.
The holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church have never failed to draw enlightenment from this fact since, as everyone knows, the sacred liturgy, “because it is the profession, subject to the supreme teaching authority within the Church, of heavenly truths, can supply proofs and testimonies of no small value for deciding a particular point of Christian doctrine.”
Eastern Christianity referred to this as the “Dormition” or “the falling asleep of the Mother of God.” It is well understood to the Eastern Church that Mary, as Christ did, suffered a bodily death. Her body was then resurrected and she was taken up to heaven body and soul.
In the liturgical books which deal with the feast either of the dormition or of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin there are expressions that agree in testifying that, when the Virgin Mother of God passed from this earthly exile to heaven, what happened to her sacred body was, by the decree of divine Providence, in keeping with the dignity of the Mother of the Word Incarnate, and with the other privileges she had been accorded.
Traditional holds, the disciples, by either divine or natural intervention, returned to Jerusalem when Mary was to enter into the dormition. All the disciples were present absent St. Thomas who came a week late. The absence of St. Thomas is parallel to the story of how he was the last to see the risen Christ. When St. Thomas arrived at the tomb of Mary, upon opening it, all that remained were flowers.