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)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (79) 15 August 2023

Saint Mary’s Church, Market Square, Lichfield … now The Hub at Saint Mary’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and the week began with the Tenth Sunday after Trinity (13 August 2023). The calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship says the Festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary may be celebrated on 15 August or, ‘for pastoral reasons,’ on 8 September. However, if the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated on 15 August, the calendar avoids describing this as her death, dormition or assumption.

Today’s Festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary is being 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 is preceded by Evensong at 5.30 pm.

Before this day begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer, reading and reflection.

In recent weeks, I have been reflecting on the churches in Tamworth. For this week and next week, I am reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at a church in Lichfield;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Inside The Hub at Saint Mary’s, facing the East Window of Saint Mary’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield:

As today is the Festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary, my reflections this morning are inspired by Saint Mary’s Church, a former city centre church on the south side of the Market Square in Lichfield.

A church is said to have stood on this site since at least 1150. The present building dates from 1870 and is a Grade II* listed building. In recent years it has found new life as a library and arts centre, and I revisited the church earlier this month.

Plaques on the outside north wall of the church recall various martyrs who were executed in Lichfield at the Reformation, including Thomas Heyward, John Goreway and Joyce Lewis, who were burnt at the stake in the Market Square during the reign of Queen Mary, and Edward Wightman, who died in the Market Square on 11 April 1612 and was the last person in England to be burned at the stake for heresy.

These executions may have inspired the founding Quaker, George Fox, when he stood barefoot in the Market Square in 1651 and denounced the city: ‘Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield.’

Standing at the west end of the church, the Samuel Johnson Birthplace and Museum was the childhood home of Samuel Johnson, and the church register, dating from 1566, records his baptism 314 years ago on 17 September 1709.

The present Saint Mary’s is the fourth church built on this site in the Market Square. The first church on the site may have been built when Lichfield was laid out by Roger de Clinton, Bishop of Lichfield, ca 1150, although it is first mentioned in the 13th century.

A fire destroyed most of Lichfield, including its churches, in 1291, and Saint Mary’s was rebuilt in the 14th century. This mediaeval church consisted of an aisled chancel, an aisled nave, a west tower and a spire. The tower is believed to have been built in 1356.

Saint Mary’s acquired a special prominence in Lichfield as the guild church of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John the Baptist, founded in 1387 by the amalgamation of two existing guilds. The guild chaplains were expected to help with the daily services in the church and to be present at the Mass of Saint Mary and the anthem Salve Regina each day.

Five members of four successive generations of the Comberford family were admitted to membership of the Guild: William Comberford (1469), John Comberford (1476), Thomas Comberford (1495), Humphrey Comberford, Master of the Guild in 1530, and his sister-in-law, Dame Isabella Comberford (1530), one of the few women admitted to membership in her own right. The guild continued to run the civic affairs of Lichfield until 1538.

From the 17th century, the north side of the church was the burial place of Anthony Dyott, who died in 1662, and later members of the Dyott family, who lived at Freeford Manor, south of Lichfield, and the chapel on the north side of the church became the Dyott Chapel.

The mediaeval tower and spire of the church had structural failings over the years, and the spire fell down in 1594 and 1626. Extensive repairs were carried out in the 17th century, but when the spire fell yet again in 1716 it was decided to rebuild the church. This church was designed by the architect Francis Smith of Warwick in the neoclassical style and stood from 1721 to 1868.

The new church building was funded by public subscription, the Conduit Lands Trust and the Lichfield Corporation, and the church was completed in 1721. These years of construction were probably witnessed by Samuel Johnson who spent his early childhood years in the house facing onto the church.

The church was built in brick while the mediaeval tower was retained, without its spire, and encased in stucco. The new church consisted of a chancel, an aisled nave with north, south and west galleries and a west tower.

Extensive repairs were carried out in 1806 and 1820 under the prominent Lichfield architect Joseph Potter the Elder, and the brick exterior was covered in stucco in 1820.

By the mid-19th century, there was a general feeling in Lichfield that a new church should be built in the Victorian Gothic style. A new church would also serve as a memorial to the former Vicar, the Revd Henry Lonsdale, brother of Bishop John Lonsdale, who died in 1851.

The tower was lowered in 1853 and remodelled in the Victorian Gothic style, complete with steeple under a design by George Edmund Street. Street also submitted a design for the main body of the church, but, due to the lack of funds, work on rebuilding the main church did not begin until 1868, when the body of the church was demolished.

The building in Derbyshire sandstone was completed in a Victorian Gothic style in 1870. The architect James Fowler of Louth, Lincolnshire, was born in Lichfield, but it is not known whether he used any of Street’s original designs. The completed church included a chancel, the Dyott chapel on the north side, an aisled nave of four bays, and the remodelled tower and spire.

By the early 19th century, it was a tradition that the burials of members of the Dyott family in Saint Mary’s took place at night. The last burial of a family member at Saint Mary’s was that of Richard Dyott in 1891, after which the Dyotts were buried at Whittington.

However, there is no evidence that Saint Mary’s ever had a churchyard, and while there were some burials inside the church, parishioners were buried in the churchyards of Saint Michael’s and Saint Chad’s, which explains why Samuel Johnson’s family are buried at Saint Michael’s.

The Lonsdale family met much of the cost of the new building. The Vicar of Saint Mary’s, the Revd Henry Lonsdale, came from a clerical family that had Anglican clergy in at least four successive generations.

While he was living at Lyncroft House – now the Hedgehog Vintage Inn, where I stay regularly – Henry Lonsdale proposed rebuilding Saint Mary’s in a Victorian Gothic style. The new church would serve as his memorial, and when he died at Lyncroft House on 31 January 1851 he was buried beneath the west tower of Saint Mary’s.

While Henry Lonsdale was the Vicar of Saint Mary’s, his brother, John Lonsdale (1788-1867), was Bishop of Lichfield (1843-1867). Bishop Lonsdale was the founder of Lichfield Theological College, a supporter of the abolitionist Wilberforce and a friend of the radical theologian FD Maurice. It was said at the time of his death that he was the best bishop the Diocese of Lichfield had ever had, the ‘perfect model of justice, kindness, humility and shrewd sense.’

The bishop’s son, Canon John Gylby Lonsdale (1818-1907), later became Vicar of Saint Mary’s (1866-1878), and oversaw the completion of the building programme. He was the father of Sophia Lonsdale, one of Lichfield’s great Victorian social reformers. In the 1880s, she declared that Lichfield’s slums were worse than anything she had seen in London. She was an active in demands for poor law reforms and her outspoken criticism eventually led to a slum clearance programme in Lichfield from the 1890s on.

Charles Bateman incorporated some colour decorations to the interior of the church in the early 20th century.

The city centre population in Lichfield declined from the 1930s as people moved out to the suburbs and shops and businesses moved into the city centre. This led to a decline in the congregation at Saint Mary’s and a large city centre church with a capacity for 900 people was no longer viable.

When a vacancy occurred in 1965, a priest-in-charge was appointed instead of a vicar because the future of the church had become uncertain. The benefice was united with Saint Michael’s in 1979. The dean and chapter were the patrons, and the rector of Saint Michael’s, who was already priest-in-charge of Saint Mary’s, was appointed the first rector of the new benefice, with Saint Michael’s as the parish church and Saint Mary’s as a chapel-of-ease.

Meanwhile, a committee was formed in the 1970s to save the building from being abandoned and demolished. The proposal was to transform the space into a multi-functional building that would serve the wider community. Work started on transforming the church in 1978, with plans designed by Hinton Brown Langstone of Warwick, and a new centre opened on 30 May 1981.

The remodelled church had five sections: a social centre for senior citizens; a café; a tourist information office and gift shop; the Lichfield Museum and heritage exhibition; and the Dyott Chapel at the north end, which continued to be used as Saint Mary’s parish church.

In recent years, Saint Mary’s has seen an amazing transformation, with the City Library on the ground floor, while the first floor includes exhibition and performance space, as well as an access point for digitised archive collections.

The new library includes Wi-Fi, touchscreen tables, computer tablets and 3D printing facilities. On the first floor is a flexible open space, integrating a 140-seat area for performance, art exhibitions and workshops. The first-floor facilities include a multi-use, cultural space with photographic archive and gallery area plus access to digital local records. The new History Access Point gives people interested in local and family history access to archives.

The refurbishment has retained the High Altar and reredos and has incorporated many of the church’s original features, including 19th century columns, stained-glass windows, choir stalls, pews, the organ and monuments, including one to Bishop Lonsdale, another to Canon Richard Harrison (1638-1675), a former Vicar of Saint Mary’s who was also Chancellor of Lichfield, Prebendary of Alrewas, and Rector of Blithfield, and the Dyott family memorials in the Dyott Chapel.

One end of the first floor has a stunning balcony overlooking the level below. A flexible performance and exhibition space fills the central space.

This new Saint Mary’s was the winner of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Conservations Award two years ago (2019). Richard Winterton, the family firm of auctioneers that has been part of life in Lichfield for seven generations, has held weekly valuations here, giving free valuations, advice and help.

The former parishes of Saint Mary’s and Saint Michael on Greenhill have been joined to form a single parish with Saint John’s Church, Wall, and together they form a united benefice.

The refurbishment of Saint Mary’s has retained the High Altar and reredos and has incorporated many of the church’s original features (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 1: 46-55 (NRSVA):

46 And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

A stained-glass window in Saint Mary’s depicting the Presentation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Reducing Stigma.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (15 August 2023, The Blessed Virgin Mary) invites us to pray in these words:

Blessed is she who had faith that the Lord’s promise would be fulfilled. All generations shall call her blessed.

The tower and spire of Saint Mary’s Church above the roof tops of Lichfield (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.

The West End of Saint Mary’s, with the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum (right), and the Guildhall in the distance on Bore Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Symbols of the Virgin Mary in the stained glass in Saint Mary’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)