06 September 2020

Death and dying in a traditional
icon and by the Bay of Naples

Patrick Comerford

The Church of England, in the Calendar in Common Worship, marks 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 this month (8 September), many are uncomfortable about commemorations on 15 August, although we usually commemorate saints on the days they are said to have died. Perhaps this discomfort has less to do with post-Reformation debates and more to do with residual memories of how 15 August was used to counter-balance Orange celebrations on 12 July.

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

The Dormition and the Assumption are different names for the same event, the Virgin Mary’s death or departure from earth, although the two feasts do not necessarily have an identical understanding of the event or sequence of events.

But, while the Assumption is only 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 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.


An icon of the Dormition by Alexandra Kaouki nears completion in her workshop in Rethymnon, Crete

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

Alexandra Kaouki at work on her icon in her workshop below the slopes of the Fortezza in Rethymnon

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.’

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

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 that year.

A missed date with Mrs Fitzherbert

The Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire … the planned venue for the USPG conference in July (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

One of the casualties of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown in Britain has been this year’s annual conference of the Anglican mission agency, USPG, United Society Partners in the Gospel. I have been a trustee of USPG for over five years, and was a council member for many years before that.

In recent years, the conference has tended to take place in the High Leigh Conference Centre in Hertfordshire. But USPG was due to return to the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire, from 20 to 22 July.

The conference, with the theme ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’: God’s People in God’s Mission, was timed to run into the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, from 23 July to 2 August, but that too has been postponed.

Mrs Maria Fitzherbert … went through a secret marriage with the future King George IV

The Hayes has been a Christian conference centre since 1911, and I first attended a conference there in 1976. The main house at Swanwick was once the home of the Fitzherbert Wright family, a branch of the Fitzherbert family whose members, by marriage, included the famous – or infamous – Mrs Fitzherbert.

Maria Anne Fitzherbert (1756-1837) was a twice-widowed Roman Catholic who secretly contracted a marriage with King George IV that was invalid under English civil law. They were married in 1785 when he was Prince of Wales, but the marriage had not received the consent of his father, George III, although her nephew-in-law from her first marriage, Cardinal Thomas Weld, persuaded Pope Pius VII to declare the marriage sacramentally valid.

Maria Fitzherbert was the eldest child of Walter Smythe of Brambridge, Hampshire. Her first husband, Edward Weld, was 16 years her senior and died just three months after their marriage in 1775. She married her second husband, Thomas Fitzherbert (1746-1781) of Swynnerton, Staffordshire, in 1778, but was widowed once again in 1781.


Ralph Fitzherbert of Norbury … ancestor of the Fitzherbert family and father-in-law of Thomas Comberford

A miniature portrait of Mrs Fitzherbert was among the 1,100 lots auctioned earlier this year at Matthews Auction Rooms in Kells, Co Meath. The catalogue described her as a ‘member, through previous marriage, of the Meath landowning Fitzherbert family.’ It went on to say, ‘she was a beauty of her age and the wife of King George IV, [to] whom she bore two children.’

However this portrait came into the Fitzherbert family in Co Meath, they were not descended from Mrs Fitzherbert. Indeed, any Fitzherbert living in Co Meath at the time of her secret marriage to the future king could only have been a fifth or fourth cousin of her second husband, Thomas Fitzherbert.

The lake at Swanwick … the estate was once owned by the Fitzherbert Wright family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On the other hand, there are many interesting connections between the Comerford and Comberford families and the Fitzherbert family in Staffordshire. The supposed Comberford ancestor of my branch of the family was Judge Richard Comberford (1512-ca 1547), a brother of Canon Henry Comberford (1499-1586), Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral.

They were the sons of Thomas Comberford (1472-1532) of Comberford, who became a member of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John the Baptist in Lichfield in 1495, a year or two before he married his second wife, Dorothy Fitzherbert, daughter of Ralph Fitzherbert of Norbury, near Ashbourne, Derbyshire.

This makes Richard Comberford a nephew of Thomas Fitzherbert, Precentor of Lichfield, William Fitzherbert, Chancellor of Lichfield, and Sir Anthony Fitzherbert, ancestor of Maria Fitzherbert’s second husband and of the Irish Fitzherberts.

There are signs and symbols of the Fitzherbert and Wright families throughout the house at Swanwick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are no portraits of Mrs Fitzherbert in the house at Swanwick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Fitzherbert Wright family of Swanwick was also ancestors of the Maynell family, who inherited a large painting once in Swanwick that was donated some years ago to USPG. The painting raised £550,000 and helped support work among refugees in Greece by USPG and the Anglican chaplaincy in Athens.

However, I don’t know if there ever was any portrait of Mrs Fitzherbert in Swanwick.

See Naples and … but don’t die

The Bay of Naples … who swims north of Naples when there is an ‘R’ in the month? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I heard once of a grand old lady who was asked late one year whether she had gone swimming that weekend.

‘No, my dear,’ she replied tersely. ‘I never swim north of Naples when there’s an R in the month.’

The saying ‘See Naples and Die’ is said to have been coined when the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies – Naples and Sicily – was at the height of its golden age under the rule of the Bourbon dynasty.

Naples and Sicily experienced a ‘golden age’ during the rule of the Bourbon dynasty (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Pompeii and Vesuvius are among the tourist attractions at the Bay of Naples (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The phrase was popularised in Northern Europe 200 years ago when it was quoted by Goethe in Italian Journey (1816/1817), where he quotes it as: Vedi Napoli e poi muori.

Goethe visited Naples and Sicily for three months, from February to May 1787, when he climbed Vesuvius, visited Pompeii, and travelled on to Taormina and other places in Sicily.

During that tour, Goethe was fascinated by the lifestyle of people: ‘Naples is a paradise; everyone lives in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness, myself included. I seem to be a completely different person whom I hardly recognise. Yesterday, I thought to myself: Either you were mad before, or you are mad now.’

The phrase quoted by Goethe earned a new popularity in Italy with a 1950s B-rated movie with the same title.


I have seen the Bay of Naples, Vesuvius and Pompeii and travelled through Sicily, visiting Taormina and Mount Etna. But my planned visit to Italy this year was to neither. Instead, I had hoped to visit Puglia in June, with a few days in Bari – also known for its links with Saint Nicholas of Santa Claus fame.

I was booked to spend a night in one of the trulli or traditional dry-stone huts with conical roofs, in the town of Alberobello. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 travel restrictions frustrated those travel plans too – among many others – along with my hopes of swimming south of Naples before there was an ‘R’ in the month.

Goethe visited Taormina in Sicily during his tour of the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples and Sicily (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

My GP tells me swimming is good for my sarcoidosis, a condition on my lungs first diagnosed about 12 years ago. The first symptoms included a persistent cough, minor infections on my legs and loss of breath and balance.

It was embarrassing to preside at the Eucharist in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, hoping not to break into an unexpected spasm of coughing, or to find myself bowed over in the chapel seats, unable to join in singing hymns. The symptoms were further complicated when I was diagnosed with a severe Vitamin B12 deficiency.

In the years since, I have been through what seems like every hospital south of the Liffey for tests and procedures. Thankfully, my GP and consultants have brought everything under control. Although I still take an inhaler twice a day, you might not notice any symptoms – though I still worries about a coughing spasm on flights or public transport that fellow passengers may fear is an indication of Covid-19.

Hopefully, my sarcoidosis symptoms remain under control. In the meantime, I hope the Coronavirus recedes and that a vaccine or an immunisation is found.

I suppose I shall have to wait until Christmas before I see Saint Nicholas of Bari. But it would be good to swim south of Naples again – whether or not there is an ‘R’ in the month from now on. And I still hope to see the Bay of Naples once again.

This feature was first published in the August 2020 edition of the 'Church Review', the Dublin and Glendalough diocesan magazine

‘When life gives you lemons’ … do not give up on returning to Naples (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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