The Iconography of the Virgin Mary
Part Four: The Dormition
The 4th through the 13th centuries saw a number of influential writings on the passing of the Virgin Mary. Details varied, but the core story was the same. The Apostles gather around Mary's bed and Christ comes to take her soul. They then perform a funeral service and carry the body to a cemetery. There her body and soul are reunited and she is taken into heaven as a living, embodied person.1

The writers never refer to Mary as dying; rather, she "fell asleep." The Latinate phrase "Dormition of the Virgin" refers to images of this falling asleep, which art historians and museum curators sometimes tendentiously label "The Death of the Virgin."

Images of the Dormition go back to at least the 9th century. In the first picture at right, we see their basic pattern: Mary's body reclines on a bier attended by the Apostles while her soul is taken by Christ and angels; the soul is signified by a child-like figure that is either clothed or swaddled.

Some images of Mary's bedside are like the first picture at right, where Christ hands the soul up to an angel. This is how the event is portrayed in John Damascene (Toal, III, 431-32) and in Gregory of Tours' Glory of the Martyrs (22), which identifies the angel as Michael. But more images are like the second picture at right, where Christ himself carries his mother's soul aloft.

THE APOSTLES AT MARY'S BEDSIDE

In many images Christ has already taken the soul and the Apostles gather around the recumbent Virgin to celebrate the Office of the Dead – with candles, books, an aspergillum, a hand-held sprinkler, often of precious metal, for sprinkling holy water onto a person or group being blessed a censer, A closed, perforated vessel for burning incense with a chain at the top so the celebrant can waft the smoke back and forth as it rises. and the like. In St. Germanus's Third Discourse on the Dormition the privilege of offering "the accustomed prayer" over the body is accorded to St. Peter (Toal, IV, 422), so in these images he is usually the one reading from the breviary. In the third picture at right he wears liturgical vestments, but usually all the apostles are pictured conventionally: barefoot, with flowing mantles over long tunics.

In other images St. John lifts the Mary's body up to place it on the bier while the other Apostles look on (example).

The number of Apostles in these images varies. Often there will be eleven (example). This is because The Passing of Mary and one version recounted by the Golden Legend say St. Thomas did not arrive until later. Elsewhere one may count twelve apostles, but one of them may be the supernumerary Paul (example). A smaller piece may include just a few (example).

Besides the Apostles, some images will show a large number of people in attendance (example), following the tradition expressed in St. Andrew of Crete's second homily on the Dormition (Daley, 129).

THE ASSAULT OF THE JEWS

In most accounts a Jewish crowd assaults the bier while the Apostles are taking it to the cemetery in Gethsemane. One of them, identified in some sources as the Chief Priest, lays his hands on the bier in an attempt to cast it to the ground. His hands then wither or fall off, depending on the source (example). Some versions leave it at that; in others the man repents and converts to Christianity, whereupon he gets his hands back.2 Some Orthodox images have the hands cut off by an angel (See this example and others cited by Professor Boguslawsky ["The Assumption"], who identifies the angel as St. Michael.)

COMBINED IMAGES

Narrative images of the Dormition are sometimes part of compositions that integrate it with the Assumption (example) or the Coronation of Mary (example) or both (example).

Prepared 2016-01-04 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-04-11, 2017-11-28.

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NOTES
1 See the 4th-century Book of John Concerning the Falling Asleep of Mary. In the 5th century Juvenal of Jerusalem wrote a detailed account of Mary's "glorious falling asleep," which he said "we have received from ancient and most reliable tradition." In the 6th, Gregory of Tours wrote of how Christ "took the holy body in a cloud and ordered it to be brought to Paradise, where, after regaining her soul, Mary now rejoices with his elect" (Glory of the Martyrs, 22). Juvenal's account was reproduced in 749 in John Damascene's "Second Oration on the Dormition" (Migne, Patrologia Graeca, XCVI, col. 722-52; Toal, IV, 437). It had been expounded with greater detail in 730 in Germanus of Constantinople's "Third Discourse on the Dormition" (Patrologia Graeca, XCVIII, col. 359-71; Toal, IV, 418-24). All five of these writers emphasize that Mary's body never suffered corruption and was received into Heaven only a short time after her "falling asleep." As John Damascene put it, "How could corruption dare touch the body that contained Life?" (¶3, Toal IV, 427). According to Toal (IV, 443) the Eastern church taught the doctrine of the Dormition / Assumption from the 5th century onward. It was celebrated on August 15 starting in the 6th century in the East and the 7th century in the West. The version in the Golden Legend in the 13th century is based on the Book of John and further popularized the account. It also cited St. Jerome's defense of the belief in Mary's bodily assumption into Heaven. This belief was not actually defined as Roman Catholic dogma until Pius XII's pronouncement in 1950 "that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory." The pronouncement, Munificentissimus Deus, contains a survey of early, medieval, and early modern writings on the subject (¶¶16-37).
2 Ryan, II, 81. Toal, IV, 422, 433. In an extended narration of the episode by John of Thessalonika the Chief Priest loses his hands, repents, and is cured. Of the other Jews who attacked the bier all are struck blind, but only some of them repent and regain their sight. (Daley, 64-67).


Constantinople, 10th or 11th century (See description page)


Vivarini's Death of the Virgin has Christ carry his mother aloft on her shroud, in a mandorla that is itself carried by a host of angels. (See the description page)


In this detail from Man­tegna's Death of the Vir­gin St. Peter in vest­ments reads from the Off­ice of the Dead while one Apostle cen­ses the body and an­other holds the oil jar. As spe­ci­fied in the Gold­en Le­gend, it is given to St. John to hold the palm branch de­scribed as "sym­bol of her vic­to­ry against death" by St. Ger­ma­nus (Toal, 420). (See the de­scrip­tion page for the full paint­ing and com­men­tary.)

MORE IMAGES

  • Undated, probably early: a Dormition mosaic taken in Ravenna.
  • 1180: In Maastricht, the Netherlands, the south tympanum has the Dormition in the lower register, the Coronation of Mary in the upper register, and the Holy Kinship in the archivolt.
  • Circa 1291: Mosaic in Santa Maria in Trastevere, with some features of the Office of the Dead.
  • 14th century: German manuscript illumination
  • Circa 1500: a high relief in Passau, Germany.
  • 15th century (est.) a panel in the Mariapfarr (Austria) Altarpiece.
  • 15th century: French marble sculpture
  • Late 15th century: Relief in wood
  • 16th century: This version by Simone de Wobrek is a rare example of a Dormition without Christ. Instead, the angels carry Mary up to the welcoming Father.
  • 16th century: Cola dell'Amitrice's painting of the Dormition and Assumption
  • 16th century: The Croatian artist Anthony of Padua's fresco

DATES

  • In the West August 15 is celebrated as the Feast of the Assumption. In the East the same day is called the Feast of the Dormition.

RELEVANT MEDIEVAL AND EARLY CHRISTIAN TEXTS

  • The Book of John Concerning the Falling Asleep of Mary: in Daley,203-223 and online at CCEL.
  • Gregory of Tours, The Glory of the Martyrs.
  • John Damascene, "Second Oration on the Dormition": in Toal, IV, 425-38 and online in Latin and Greek at Migne, Patrologia Graeca.
  • Germanus of Constantinople, "Third Discourse on the Dormition" in Toal, IV, 418-24, Daley, 153-66, and online in Latin and Greek at Migne, Patrologia Graeca.
  • Golden Legend #119 (The Assumption): html or pdf.
  • Also see Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus: online at the web site of the Holy See.

ALSO SEE