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.

THE APOSTLES AT MARY'S BEDSIDE

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. Rarely, the image will not show Christ at all; the Apostles are simply gathered around the recumbent Virgin, as in this 13th-century example.

St. Germanus's Third Discourse on the Dormition has St. Paul insist that the privilege of offering "the accustomed prayer" over the body should go to St. Peter (Toal, IV, 422). Thus images influenced by this work will put Peter in priestly vestments and will picture liturgical action similar to the medieval Office of the Dead, with vestments, candles, hymn books, ointment jars, and censers, as in the third picture at right.

In many images there is one Apostle who is not at Mary's bedside. According to The Passing of Mary and one version recounted by the Golden Legend St. Thomas did not arrive until later.

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.

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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

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