Sunday, August 14, 2011

Vigil of the Feast of the Assumption – The Dormition of the Virgin

Dormition and Assumption
from Book of Antiphons
Italian (Florence), c.1385-c.1399
London, British Library
MS Additonal 37955A

The Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is one of the major feasts of the Church year. The bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven upon her death has for centuries been celebrated in both the Eastern (Greek-speaking) and Western (Latin-speaking, now vernacular) churches.

Although it was not until 1950 that Pope Pius XII issued the Papal Bull “Munificentisisimus Deus”, 1 which declared that the Assumption was truly an article of faith, its history goes far, far back in time. It has been celebrated as a liturgical feast since shortly after the fourth century recognition of Christianity.

The belief in Mary’s bodily translation into heaven comes from several sources:

  • Theological reflection on Mary’s status as mother of Jesus, expressed as the belief (confirmed by the First Council of Ephesus in 431, the third ecumenical council 2) that, as the mother of the Christ she is also the Mother of God (in Greek Theotokos, in Latin Mater Dei) and, therefore, received a special dispensation both from Original Sin and from the physical effects of Death.
  • Further theological reflection that her status makes her the first human to experience the glorious state of those saved by Christ to which all who believe in Him will come at the end of time. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son's Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians.”3
  • The early appearance of liturgical celebrations of her death and assumption into heaven, as noted above, and the prayers that have been passed down from those liturgies.
  • The curious fact that in eras (such as the Middle Ages) intensely interested in the acquisition of relics of the saints, often resulting in unseemly events of theft and downright faking, no physical relics of Mary’s body parts seem to be located anywhere. This is especially interesting in view of the fact that many locations claim bits of the bodies of her contemporaries, such as St. John the Baptist or the Apostles. It is true that some places claim objects associated with the Virgin Mary, but this only makes the missing body more interesting. For, if the effect of the preservation of a garment believed to be her tunic from a fire in 1194 could have stimulated the amazing building activity of the Cathedral of Chartres 4 it is rather astonishing that no place claims her arm or hand or head.

Stories of more or less believability have grown up around the death of Mary, also called the Dormition (falling asleep) or (in Greek) the Koimesis of the Virgin and all of these have been translated into visual representations over the centuries. In today’s essay I will discuss those that preceded the Assumption itself. In another essay tomorrow I will describe the images of the Assumption itself and in a forthcoming essay I will describe the final episode, the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven. The sources of all these stories were collected together by Jacobus de Voragine in the Golden Legend,4 but they pre-existed his compilation and were known in both East and West.

The Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin. 

Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin
from the DeLisle Hours
England (possibly York)
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 50, fol.160r

After living many years in the home of St. John the Evangelist, Mary was visited by an angel who greeted her “All hail blessed Mary, receiving the blessing of him that sent his blessing to Jacob. Lo! here a bough of palm of paradise, Lady, which I have brought to thee, which thou shalt command to be borne before thy bier. For thy soul shall be taken from thy body the third day next following, and thy son abideth thee, his honourable mother.4 This subject is one of the least frequently depicted by artists. However, images of it do exist, especially where there is a cycle of the stories surrounding Mary’s death and assumption.

Duccio, Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

  • The gathering of the Apostles.

In this portion of the story all the living apostles were miraculously brought by angels from all the places on earth to which their preaching had taken them so that they might be present for her death. This is also not too frequently depicted as a separate image.

Master Fauvel, Apostles at Mary's Deathbed
from Lives of the Saints by Jean de Montbaston
French (Paris), 1325-1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS 183, fol. 58

There is a beautiful choral anthem that describes Mary’s reaction composed recently by Sir John Tavener (born 1944), a convert to Orthodox Christianity, to which I’m adding a You Tube link. 

The Death of the Virgin.
The earliest images of Mary’s actual death that we have are Byzantine icons. They show the apostles gathered around Mary’s bed as she dies. But she is not alone with them. Unseen by the apostles, Jesus stands by the bed, receiving or already holding her small soul, sometimes shown as if it were a baby in swaddling bands, sometimes as a miniature adult. This image, of the apostles gathered at the death bed, has the longest history of the episodes leading up to the Assumption proper. It appears 
Dormition of the Virgin
Byzantine Icon, 1150-1200
Sinai, Monastery of St. Catherine

In Byzantine icons

In Byzantine ivories   
Dormition of the Virgin,  Ivory 
Central plaque of the cover of the Gospels of Otto III
10th century , late 10th century
Munich, Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4453

In mosaics
Pietro Cavallini, Dormition of the Virgin
Italian, 1296-1300
Rome, Santa Maria in Trastevere

In Western manuscript painting from the Ottonian era in the 10th and 11th centuries to the decline in the manuscript that came with the triumph of printing in the 16th,

Dormition of the Virgin
from Treves Sacramentary
German (Reichenau School), 1020-1040
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 18005, fol. 188v

In medieval sculpture 

Dormition of the Virgin
Gothic 1220
Strasbourg, Strasbourg Cathedral
and in painting during the Middle Ages

Duccio, Dormition of the Virgin
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

and the Renaissance

Bartolomeo Vivarini, Death of the Virgin
Italian, 1485
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hugo van der Goes, Death of the Virgin
Netherlandish, c. 1480
Bruges, Groeninge Museum

Note that in these last two pictures Christ is no longer shown as present in the room, but appears as a heavenly vision

and into the early Baroque era, at which time it became a purely terrestrial event.
Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin
Italian, 1605
Paris, Musee du Louvre
It is at this point that it was superseded by the finalized image of the Assumption.

 Master Fauvel, Funeral of the Virgin
from Lives of the Saints by Jean de Montbaston
French (Paris), 1325-1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS 183, fol. 58

Funeral of the Virgin.
This subject is one of the less familiar ones. It may consist of an image of the Apostles carrying the bier of the Virgin to the cemetery at Gethsemane or of the apostles standing at the graveside.

Funeral of the Virgin
from the DeLisle Hours
English (possibly York), 1316-1331
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 50, fol.161r

Some images include the legendary figures of one or two Jewish priests, who attempted to overturn the bier, seize the corpse and burn it. According to the legend, their hands stuck to the bier and they were unable to accomplish their intent. 4

To be continued….
1. Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus: Defining the Dogma of the Assumption, November 1, 1950. The complete text in English is available at

2. For a review of the First Council of Ephesus see,

3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second edition, article 966. Available online at

4. The Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea), Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, 1275, Englished by William Caxton, 1483, Vol. 4, pp. 110-117. Available online at

© M. Duffy, 2011

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