According to New Testament apocrypha, Jesus' mother Mary was physically assumed (raised) to heaven after her death. In Rubens depiction of the Assumption, 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 blossoms that miraculously filled the empty coffin.
The Antwerp Cathedral of Our Lady opened a competition for an Assumption altar in 1611. Rubens submitted models to the clergy on February 16, 1618. In September 1626, 15 years later, he completed the piece.