Wednesday, August 14, 2019

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


Dormition and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
From a Book of Antiphons
Italian (Florence), c.1385-1399
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. 


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.

Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin
from the De Lisle Hours
England (possibly York), 1316-1331
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 50, fol.160r

Duccio, Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Bedford Master and Workshop, Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1430-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M359, fol.100r
Master of Peter Danielssoen, Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin
From Spiegel van den laven ons Heren and other works
Flemish (Brabant), c. 1450-1460
New York, Pierpon Mothsn Library
MS M868, fol. 57v
Jean Colombe and Workshop, Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin
From the Hours of Anne of France
French (Bourges), 1473
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M677, fol. 158v

While this is largely a medieval subject it does appear in some later art, as for instance in this painting from the Dutch golden age.

Samuel van Hoogstraten, Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin
Dutch, c. 1670
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
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 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.

Gathering of the Apostles at Mary's Deathbed
French, 13th Century
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Master of the Roman de 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


The Apostles Gathered at the Virgin's Deathbed
English, 15th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Hans Klocker, Apostles Gathered Around Mary as She Waits for Death
Austrian, c. 1481-1495
Chicago, Art Institute

Workshop of Tilman Heysacker, The Apostles Gathered at Mary's Deathbed
German, Late 15th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection


Master of the Amsterdam Death of the Virgin, Apostles Gathered Around Mary as She Waits for Death
Dutch, c. 1500
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Master of the Oberschoenenfelder Altar, Apostles Gathered Around Mary as She Waits for Death
German, c. 1500
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldegalerie , Alte Pinakothek
Hans Holbein the Elder, Apostles Gathered Around Mary as She Waits for Death
German, c. 1502
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek
Charles de la Fosse, Apostles Gathered Around Mary as She Waits for Death
French, c. 1700
Cherbourg-Octeville, Musée Thomas Henry

The Death of the Virgin

The earliest images of Mary’s actual death that we have are Byzantine ivories and 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 


In Byzantine icons


Dormition of the Virgin
Byzantine Icon, 1150-1200
Sinai, Monastery of St. Catherine
Dormition of the Virgin_
Byzantine, 13th Century
Sinai, Saint Catherine's Monastery

In Byzantine ivories   

Dormition of the Virgin
Byzantine, Second Half of 10th Century
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer

Dormition of the Virgin
Central plaque of the cover of the Gospels of Otto III
Byzantine, c. 1000
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4453

In mosaics

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

In Byzantine Manuscript Illumination

Dormition of the Virgin
From The Hamilton Lectionary
Byzantine, c. 1080-1000
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M639, fol. 366r
Dormition of the Virgin
From a Book of Gospels
Byzantine, c. 1175-1250
London, British Library
MS Harley 1810, fol. 174v

In Western Manuscripts

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,

Death of the Virgin
From the Treves Sacramentary
German (Reichenau), c. 1020-1040
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 18005, fol. 188v
Death of the Virgin
From the Scheyerer Matutinalbuch (I)
German, c. 1215-1230
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 1740, fol. 51
Death of the Virgin
From a Prayer Book
Flemish (Brussels), c. 1275-1300
London, British Library
MS Harley 2449, fol. 230v


Death of the Virgin
From The Taymouth Hours
English (London), c. 1350-1400
London, British Library
MS Yates Thompson 13, fol. 133
Death of the Virgin
From Weltchronik
German (Regensburg), c. 1355-1365
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M769, fol. .299v
Jean Colombe and Workshop, Death of the Virgin
From the Hours of Anne of France
French (Bourges), 1473
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M677, fol. 157v

In medieval sculpture 

In stone
Death of the Virgin
Gothic 1220
Strasbourg, Strasbourg Cathedral


In Ivory

Death of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1360-1370
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Master of Kremsmuenster, Death of the Virgin
German, c. 1400-1450
Chicago, Art Institute

And in Other Materials

Death of the Virgin
Austrian, End of the 15th Century
Vienna, Belvedere Museum


In Painting During the Middle Ages

Duccio, Death of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Death of the Virgin
Bohemian (Czech), c. 1340-1345
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
Gherardo Starnina, Death of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1401-1410
Chicago, Art Institute

Other Representations

In addition to the Byzantine image, in which Christ stands at the deathbed holding the soul of His mother, other images developed.  In these Christ is seen in heaven, above the earthly deathbed, either carrying Mary's soul or reaching for toward her.

Death of the Virgin
From the Prum Evangelary
German, First half of the 12th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 17325, fol.51v

Death of the Virgin
From Vita Christi
English, c. 1190-1200
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS 101, fol. 92v


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




Adding Liturgical Elements

In the course of the medieval period numerous representations of Mary's death began to include elements of the liturgy that surrounds the death of the faithful.  These include the use of incense, burning candles and the sprinkling of holy water.  In many of these images one of the Apostles, easily identified as Saint Peter, appears in actual liturgical garments, the alb, the basic priestly garment, and the cope, which is a capelike garment worn by the priest for liturgical functions outside of Mass.

Death of the Virgin
From the Book of Pericopes of Emperor Henry II
German (Reichenau), c. 1007-1012
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibiliothek
MS Clm 4452, fol.  161v
Here the Apostle who can be identified as John swings an incense thurible as Mary's soul ascends to Christ.

Hans Suess von Kulmbach, Death of the Virgin
German, First Quarter of 15th Century
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek
Saint Peter, vested in an alb and cope prepares to sprinkle Mary with holy water while Saint John hands her a burning candle.

Death of the Virgin
Tyrolese, c. 1420-1430
London, National Galleery
Here Saint Peter, wearing an alb, swings the thurible over the body of Mary.
Follower of the Egerton Master, Death of the Virgin
From a Book of Hours
French (Besancon), c. 1425-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M293, fol. 9r
In this image Saint Peter sprinkles the corpse with holy water as Mary's soul arrives in the arms of her son.
Death of the Virgin
German, c. 1430-1440
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Several of the Apostles participate in liturgical actions: imparting a blessing, possibly using holy water (the active hand has been cut off at some point), holding a liturgical book, preparing incense for use.  
Master of the Heisteracher Altars, Death of the Virgin
German, c. 1440
Munich,Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek
Here Saint John places an unlit candle in Mary's hand, while Saint Peter holds one that is burning, as Mary's soul nestles in the arms of her son.
Andrea Mantegna, Death of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1460-1464
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
In this lovely picture by Mantegna we see one of the Apostles from behind, as he incenses Mary's body.  Saint Peter and another Apostle impart a blessing, while the three Apostles at the right sing a hymn.
Hugo van der Goes, Death of the Virgin
Flemish, c. 1480
Bruges, Groeninge Museum
As Christ arrives in a burst of heavenly light to welcome his mother's soul, Saint Peter, dressed in alb and priestly stole receives a lighted candle from another Apostle. 
Attributed to Domingo Ram, Death of the Virgin
Spanish, c. 1490-1500
Le Mans, Musée de Tessé
As Mary's soul enters heaven, two of the Apostles prepare incense, Saint John prays and Saint Peter, vested in alb and cope and carrying a crozier looks on.
Hans Schaeufelein, Death of the Virgin
From the Christgatner Altar
German, c. 1515-1516
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek
Here the still-living Mary receives a burning candle from Saint John, while Saint Peter sprinkles her with holy water and another Apostle stands at the foot of the bed with a cross and incense thurible.
Death of the Virgin
Flemish, c. 1520
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
In this beautiful stained glass window Saint Peter, in alb and cope and assisted by Saint John who holds a burning candle, reads prayers from a book, while another Apostle stands ready with holy water.

The Renaissance and Baroque eras

Michiel Coxcie, Death  of the Virgin
Flemish, Before 1550
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

By the beginning of the Baroque era the death of Mary had primarily become a purely terrestrial event, with few artists making references to the entrance of Mary's soul into heaven or to the liturgy for the dying.



Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin
Italian, 1605
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Carlo Saraceni, Death of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1610-1620
Venice, Gallerie della Accademia
Luca Giordano, Death of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1696
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie

Cosmas Damian Assam, Death of the Virgin
German, c.  1725-1726
Klaudrae, Benedictine Abby Church of the Assumption

Jean Charles Nicaise Perrin, Death of the Virgin
French, 1788
Versailles, Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon
It is at this period that the iconography of the Death of the Virgin was superseded by the finalized image of the Assumption.

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.

 Master of the Roman de 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


Master of Death, Funeral of the Virgin
From Histoire de la Bible et de l'Assomption de Notre-Dame
French (Paris), c. 1390-1400
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 526, fol. 43r
Bedford Master and Workshop, Funeral Procession of the Virgin
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1430-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M359, fol. 103v

Filippo Lippi, Funeral of the Virgin
Italian, c. 467-1469
Spoleto, Cathedral

Boccaccio Boccaccino the Elder, Funeral of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1500
Paris, Musee du Louvre


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

Punishment of the Evildoers
From the DeLisle Hours
English (possibly York), 1316-1331
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 50, fol.161r
Punishment of the Evildoers
From the Historien Bibel
German (Swabia), c. 1375-1400
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M268. fol. 33v
Master of Death, Punishment of the Evildoers
From Histoire de la Bible et de l'Assomption de Notre-Dame
French (Paris), c. 1390-1400
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 526, fol. 43v
Brother Philipp, Punishment of the Evildoers
From Weltchronik
German (Regensburg), c.1400-1410
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS 33, fol. 306 
Jean Poyer, Punishment of the Evildoers
From a Book of Hours
French (Tours), c. 1500
London, British Library
MS Yates Thompson 5, fol. 60

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 http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_p-xii_apc_19501101_munificentissimus-deus_en.html

2. For a review of the First Council of Ephesus see, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05491a.htm

3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second edition, article 966. Available online at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2C.HTM

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 http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/goldenlegend/GoldenLegend-Volume4.asp#Assumption

© M. Duffy, 2011, revised, with additional material 2019

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