15 August 2023

Death and dying:
a reflection on icons
of the Dormition
of the Virgin Mary

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

Patrick Comerford

In the Calendar of the Orthodox Church, today [15 August] is the Feast of the Dormition (Κοίμησις) or the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary. For Roman Catholics, it is the Feast of the Assumption, which has particular associations with Ephesus.

in the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today is marked simply as ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary’, without any indication of any event in her life or any commemoration.

Today’s Festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been marked in Lichfield Cathedral today at the mid-day Eucharist at 12:30 and with Solemn Choral Evensong at 5:30 sung by the Sussex Festival Singers, with Stanford’s Evening Service in C and Jacques Arcadelt’s Ave Maria. In Pusey House, Oxford, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is being marked this evening with High Mass at 6 pm, when Father Alexander McGregor is preaching. Mass was preceded by Evensong at 5.30 pm.

A reflection in the parish leaflet in Stony Stratford and Calverton described the Assumption as ‘the taking up of Mary into the glory of the Resurrection.’ It added, ‘In sharing in the fullness of God’s life and love, we remember that the same promise is made to all believers, as we turn to the Lord for grace and mercy.’

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.

Since the end of the 19th century, however, Mereyama, 8 km east of Selçuk, near ancient Ephesus, has been venerated by many Roman Catholics as the site of the Virgin Mary’s last earthly home. This tradition is based not on tradition or history, but on the writings of an 18th century German nun and visionary, Sister Catherine Emmerich, who never left her own country, and the interpretation of her visions by some late 19th century French Lazarist priests who were living in Smyrna (Izmir).

The pilgrim industry was boosted by a papal visit in 1967. Today, undoubtedly, Mereyama has been thronged by thousands of tourists staying in Kuşadasi, the Turkish coastal resort near Ephesus. Few of them may ever know that the commemoration of this feast has different emphases in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. The Dormition and the Assumption may appear to be different names for the same event – the Virgin Mary’s departure from this earth – but the beliefs surrounding this day are not actually the same.

A fresco depicting the Dormition of the Virgin Mary in the parish church in Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dormition: death or dogma?

The Feast of the Dormition is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church. However, this belief has never been formally defined as dogma by the Orthodox Church, nor is it made a precondition of baptism.

The Orthodox Church teaches that the Virgin Mary died a natural death, like any human being; that her soul was received by Christ upon death; and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her burial, at which time she was taken up, bodily only, into heaven, so that her tomb was found empty on the third day.

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.

On the other hand, Roman Catholic teaching says she was ‘assumed’ into heaven in bodily form. Some Roman Catholics agree with the Orthodox that this happened after her death, while others hold that she did not experience death. In his dogmatic definition of the Assumption in Munificentissimus Deus (1950), Pope Pius XII was not so dogmatic, for he appears to leave open the question of whether or not she actually underwent death and even alludes to the fact of her death at least five times.

In the Orthodox tradition, Mary died as all people die, for she had a mortal human nature like all of us. The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary was subject to being saved from the trials, sufferings, and death of this world by Christ. Having died truly, she was raised by him and she already takes part in the eternal life that is promised to all who ‘hear the word of God and keep it’ (Luke 11: 27-28). But what happens to Mary happens to all who imitate her holy life of humility, obedience and love.

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

An ancient tradition

In the Orthodox tradition, it is said that after the Day of Pentecost, the Theotokos remained in Jerusalem with the infant Church, living in the house of Saint John the Evangelist. That tradition says she was in her 50s at the time of her death. As the early Christians stood around her deathbed, she commended her spirit to the Lord, and tradition says Christ then descended from Heaven, taking up her soul in his arms. The apostles sang funeral hymns in her honour and carried her body to a tomb in Cedron near Gethsemane. When a man tried to interrupt their solemn procession, an angel came and cut off his hands, but he was healed later.

The story says that the Apostle Thomas arrived on the third day and wished to see the Virgin Mary for the last time. The stone was rolled back, and an empty tomb was discovered. Orthodox tradition says that the Theotokos was resurrected bodily and taken to heaven, and teaches that the same reward awaits all the righteous on the Last Day.

Icons of the Dormition date from the 10th century, although there may have been earlier representations. In traditional icons of the Dormition, the Theotokos is shown on the funeral bier. Christ, who is standing behind her, has come to receive his mother’s soul into heaven. In his left arm, he holds her as an infant in white, symbolising the soul of the Theotokos reborn in her glory in heaven.

Greek icons of the Dormition, Η Κοιμηcισ τησ Θεοτοκου, follow a 1,000-year-old tradition that some say dates back to early texts.

Behind the bier, Christ stands robed in white and – as in icons of the Transfiguration, the Resurrection and the Last Judgment – he appears surrounded by the aureole, or elongated halo, depicting the Light of his Divinity and signifying his heavenly glory.

Christ receives the soul of the Mother of God, but here the imagery reverses the traditional picture of mother and son, as he holds her soul, like a child, in his arms.

The Twelve Apostles are present; sometimes they are shown twice: grouped around the bier, and transported to the scene on clouds accompanied by angels.

The Apostles are usually seen on either side of the bier – the group on the left led by Saint Peter, who stands at the head of the bier; the group on the right led by Saint Paul, who stands at the foot of the bier.

In many icons, we also see four early Christian writers, who are identified by their bishops’ robes decorated with crosses – James, Dionysios the Areopagite, Hierotheos and Timotheos of Ephesus. In the background, mourning women are a reminder too, perhaps, of the women who wept when they met Christ carrying his cross to Calvary, or who arrived at his tomb early on Easter morning ready to anoint his dead body.

The cherubim in blue, the seraphim in red and the golden stars in these icons refer to the hierarchy of cosmic powers, described by Dionysios the Areopagite, who serve the Lord. Archangels are present in the foreground in the lower left and right corners. In the centre foreground, the Archangel Michael threatens the non-believing Jephonias who dared to touch her bier in an attempt to disrupt her funeral. The story is told that his hands were cut off but that later they were miraculously restored when he repented, was converted to Christianity, and was baptised.

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

Christ holding his mother’s soul wrapped like a new-born baby … a detail from Alexandra Kaouki’s icon of the Dormition as it neared completion

Watching the creation of an icon

It was my privilege in Crete 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, then 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 traditional depiction of the Dormition in a fresco in a Greek church

Ecumenical agreement

The name Theotokos was given to the Virgin Mary by the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 CE. That council decreed that she should be honoured by this name which confirms the Orthodox belief in the Incarnation: that Christ was both true God and true man.

As so often happened in those days, this action was a response to heretical teachings that needed to be addressed. Thus, once and for all, the Church affirmed its teachings about Christ and Mary.

It is a custom in some Orthodox parishes to bring fragrant herbs or flowers to the church to be blessed on the Feast of the Dormition. These are then used to decorate an icon or the family table.

In some places, the Rite of the ‘Burial of the Theotokos’ is commemorated an all-night vigil, with an order of service based on the service of the Burial of Christ on Great Saturday.

Tinos, one of the largest islands in the Greek Cyclades, is best-known for its large Church of Panagia Megalochori (The Virgin with All Graces), on a hill above the capital, Chora. Each year, the church attracts thousands of pilgrims from all over Greece to Tinos on 15 August.

A fresco depicting the Dormition of the Virgin Mary in a church in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who looked upon the lowliness of the Blessed Virgin Mary
and chose her to be the mother of your only Son:
grant that we who are redeemed by his blood
may share with her in the glory of your eternal kingdom;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God Most High,
whose handmaid bore the Word made flesh:
we thank you that in this sacrament of our redemption
you visit us with your Holy Spirit
and overshadow us by your power;
strengthen us to walk with Mary the joyful path of obedience
and so to bring forth the fruits of holiness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Troparion (Tone 1)

In giving birth, you preserved your virginity!
In falling asleep you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos!
You were translated to life, O Mother of Life,
and by your prayers you deliver our souls from death!

Kontakion (Tone 2)

Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos,
who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions.
For being the Mother of Life,
she was translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!

An icon depicting the Dormition of the Virgin Mary in the Church of Aghiou Philippou in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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