15 August 2020

Different traditions and
different understandings
of a feast on 15 August

The icon of the Dormition completed by Alexandra Kaouki for a church in the old town of Rethymnon in Crete

Patrick Comerford

The calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship marks today [15 August] as a Holy Day with the simple designation ‘Blessed Virgin Mary.’ The Orthodox Church celebrates the day as the Dormition of the Theotokos, and for the Roman Catholic it is the Feast of the Assumption.

Although the Birth of the Virgin Mary is marked in the calendar of the Church of Ireland next month [8 September], many members of the Church of Ireland would probably be uncomfortable about commemorations on 15 August.

Traditionally, saints are named in the church calendar on the days they are said to have died. Christ, the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist are the only figures named in the calendar of the Church of Ireland on the days marking their birthday: Christmas Day or 25 December, 8 September and 25 June. We remember the death of Christ on Good Friday, but neither the death of Saint John the Baptist (29 August) nor the death of the Virgin Mary (15 August) appear in the Calendar of the Church of Ireland this month.

In the case of Saint John the Baptist, this may be because he is recalled each year in the Epiphany readings as well as on 25 June.

Perhaps this discomfort marking the death of the Virgin Mary on 15 August has less to do with post-Reformation debates about her and more to do with residual memories of how 15 August was used by the Ancient Order of Hibernians to counter-balance Orange celebrations a month earlier on 12 July.

The Orthodox Church marks this day as the Dormition, while the Roman Catholic Church refers to it as the Assumption. They are different names for the same event – the death of the Virgin Mary or her departure from earth – but the two feasts do not necessarily have an identical understanding of the event or sequence of events.

The Assumption is a recent doctrinal innovation in the Roman Catholic tradition, decreed in 1950. The tradition of the Dormition is much older in the Orthodox Church, where the day is a Great Feast and recalls the ‘falling asleep’ or death of the Virgin Mary.

The death or Dormition of Mary is not recorded in the New Testament. Hippolytus of Thebes, writing in the seventh or eighth century, claims in his partially preserved chronology to the New Testament that the Virgin Mary lived for 11 years after the death of Jesus and died in AD 41.

The term Dormition expresses the belief that the Virgin died without suffering, in a state of spiritual peace. This belief does not rest on any scriptural basis, but is affirmed by Orthodox tradition. It is testified to in some old Apocryphal writings, but neither the Orthodox Church nor other Christians regard these as possessing scriptural authority.

The tradition of the Dormition is associated with a number of places, including Jerusalem, Ephesus and Constantinople. In his guidebook, The Holy Land, the late Jerome Murphy-O’Connor points out that two places in Jerusalem are traditionally associated with the end of the Virgin Mary’s earthly life: a monastery on Mount Zion is the traditional site of her death or falling asleep; and the basilica in the Garden of Gethsemane is said to be the site of her tomb.

However, the first four Christian centuries are silent about the death of the Virgin Mary, and there is no documentary evidence to support claims that the feast of the Dormition was observed in Jerusalem around the time of the Council of Ephesus in 431.

Traditional Orthodox icons of the Dormition depicting the death of the Virgin Mary incorporate many apocryphal elements or details from writings known as pseudepigrapha. Many icons show the apostles and other saints, including four early Christian writers, gathered around her deathbed, with Christ and the angels waiting above.

The icon of the Dormition was completed by El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos) in Crete, probably before 1567

The best-known version of this icon is the work of El Greco, or Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614), painted in Crete probably before 1567.

It was my privilege some years ago to watch a new icon on this theme in Orthodoxy being shaped and created by Alexandra Kaouki, perhaps the most talented and innovative iconographer in Crete today, as she worked in her studio below the Venetian fortezza in the in the old town of Rethymnon.

She was creating this new icon for the Church of Our Lady of the Angels, or the Little Church of Our Lady, on a small square in the old town.

It was a careful, slow, step-by-step work in progress, based on El Greco’s celebrated icon. But, as her work progressed, Alexandra made what she describes as ‘necessary corrections’ to allow her to ‘entirely follow the Byzantine rules.’

In her studio, we discussed why El Greco places three candelabra in front of the bier. Perhaps he is using them as a Trinitarian symbol. However, Alexandra has returned to the traditional depiction of only one to remain true to Byzantine traditions.

How many of the Twelve should be depicted?

Should Saint Thomas be shown, or was he too late?

Why did she omit stories from later developments in the tradition, yet introduce women?

Alexandra completed her icon in time for the Feast of the Dormition in Rethymnon on 15 August that year.

A fresco of the Dormition in a church in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Greece, today is one of the biggest celebrations of the Orthodox Church, with people flocking to churches and monasteries to reverence icons of the Virgin Mary, with liturgical celebrations and processions, sometimes until late in the evening.

Some of the best-known celebrations in Greece are on the islands of Tinos, Patmos, Lesvos and Skiathos. It is not a day to mourn the death of the Virgin Mary, but a day of joy and dancing, celebrating the union of the mother with her beloved son.

The pilgrimage to the church on Tinos is probably the largest religious pilgrimage in Greece, and the festival there lasts until 23 August.

This is also the name day for Greeks with the names Maria (Mary), Marios, Panagiotis, Panagiota and Despina.

A traditional depiction of the Dormition in a fresco in a Greek church

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