Part of a catechetical series on the textual foundations, visual elements, and theology of the icons of the twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church, which was first taught at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit Orthodox Church (Beavertown, PA).
The Textual Foundations of the Icon
The visual elements of the icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God are not derived from any biblical text. Neither are they taken from the Protoevangelium of James, which relates to us the events depicted in the icons of the feasts of the Nativity, Presentation, and Annunciation of the Theotokos. Rather, the events of the Dormition of the Theotokos are derived from a number of early Christian oral and (eventually) written traditions. There is a Greek document, “The Dormition of Mary,” attributed to St. John the Theologian, which dates to no later than the 4th century. There are also three documents published sometime between the 5th and 7th centuries which recount the falling asleep of the Mother of God, attributed to Pseudo-John the Theologian, Pseudo-Meltios of Sardis, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, respectively. The actual feast of the Dormition was being celebrated by Christians as early as late-6th century, that is, at least this early on the received feast day of August 15th.
The Orthodox Church in America website provides an excellent synopsis that draws from these multiple accounts:
“At the time of Her blessed Falling Asleep, the Most Holy Virgin Mary was again at Jerusalem. Her fame as the Mother of God had already spread throughout the land and had aroused many of the envious and the spiteful against Her. They wanted to make attempts on Her life; but God preserved Her from enemies.
Day and night She spent her time in prayer. The Most Holy Theotokos went often to the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord, and here She offered up fervent prayer.
In one such visit to Golgotha, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Her and announced Her approaching departure from this life to eternal life. In pledge of this, the Archangel gave Her a palm branch. With these heavenly tidings the Mother of God returned to Jerusalem with the three girls attending Her (Sepphora, Abigail, and Jael). She summoned Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and other disciples of the Lord, and told them of Her impending Repose.
The Most Holy Virgin prayed also that the Lord would have the Apostle John come to Her. The Holy Spirit transported him from Ephesus, setting him in that very place where the Mother of God lay. After the prayer, the Most Holy Virgin offered incense, and John heard a voice from Heaven, closing Her prayer with the word “Amen.” The Mother of God took it that the voice meant the speedy arrival of the Apostles and the Disciples and the holy Bodiless Powers.
The faithful, whose number by then was impossible to count, gathered together, says St John of Damascus, like clouds and eagles, to listen to the Mother of God. Seeing one another, the Disciples rejoiced, but in their confusion they asked each other why the Lord had gathered them together in one place. St John the Theologian, greeting them with tears of joy, said that the time of the Virgin’s repose was at hand.
Going in to the Mother of God, they beheld Her lying upon the bed, and filled with spiritual joy. The Disciples greeted Her, and then they told her how they had been carried miraculously from their places of preaching. The Most Holy Virgin Mary glorified God, because He had heard Her prayer and fulfilled Her heart’s desire, and She began speaking about Her imminent end.
During this conversation the Apostle Paul also appeared in a miraculous manner together with his disciples Dionysius the Areopagite, St Hierotheus, St Timothy and others of the Seventy Apostles. The Holy Spirit had gathered them all together so that they might be granted the blessing of the All-Pure Virgin Mary, and more fittingly to see to the burial of the Mother of the Lord. She called each of them to Herself by name, She blessed them and extolled them for their faith and the hardships they endured in preaching the Gospel of Christ. To each She wished eternal bliss, and prayed with them for the peace and welfare of the whole world.
Then came the third hour (9 A.M.), when the Dormition of the Mother of God was to occur. A number of candles were burning. The holy Disciples surrounded her beautifully adorned bed, offering praise to God. She prayed in anticipation of Her demise and of the arrival of Her longed-for Son and Lord. Suddenly, the inexpressible Light of Divine Glory shone forth, before which the blazing candles paled in comparison. All who it saw took fright. Descending from Heaven was Christ, the King of Glory, surrounded by hosts of Angels and Archangels and other Heavenly Powers, together with the souls of the Forefathers and the Prophets, who had prophesied in ages past concerning the Most Holy Virgin Mary.
Seeing Her Son, the Mother of God exclaimed: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God My Savior, for He hath regarded the low estate of His Handmaiden” (Luke 1:46-48) and, rising from Her bed to meet the Lord, She bowed down to Him, and the Lord bid Her enter into Life Eternal. Without any bodily suffering, as though in a happy sleep, the Most Holy Virgin Mary gave Her soul into the hands of Her Son and God.
Then began a joyous angelic song. Accompanying the pure soul of the God-betrothed and with reverent awe for the Queen of Heaven, the angels exclaimed: “Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee, blessed art Thou among women! For lo, the Queen, God’s Maiden comes, lift up the gates, and with the Ever-Existing One, take up the Mother of Light; for through Her salvation has come to all the human race. It is impossible to gaze upon Her, and it is impossible to render Her due honor” (Stikherion on “Lord, I Have Cried”). The Heavenly gates were raised, and meeting the soul of the Most Holy Mother of God, the Cherubim and the Seraphim glorified Her with joy. The face of the Mother of God was radiant with the glory of Divine virginity, and from Her body there came a sweet fragrance.
Kissing the all-pure body with reverence and in awe, the Disciples in turn were blessed by it and filled with grace and spiritual joy. Through the great glorification of the Most Holy Theotokos, the almighty power of God healed the sick, who with faith and love touched the holy bed.
Bewailing their separation from the Mother of God, the Apostles prepared to bury Her all-pure body. The holy Apostles Peter, Paul, James and others of the Twelve Apostles carried the funeral bier upon their shoulders, and upon it lay the body of the Ever-Virgin Mary. St John the Theologian went at the head with the resplendent palm-branch from Paradise. The other saints and a multitude of the faithful accompanied the funeral bier with candles and censers, singing sacred songs. This solemn procession went from Sion through Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane.
With the start of the procession there suddenly appeared over the all-pure body of the Mother of God and all those accompanying Her a resplendent circular cloud, like a crown. There was heard the singing of the Heavenly Powers, glorifying the Mother of God, which echoed that of the worldly voices. This circle of Heavenly singers and radiance accompanied the procession to the very place of burial.
Unbelieving inhabitants of Jerusalem, taken aback by the extraordinarily grand funeral procession and vexed at the honor accorded the Mother of Jesus, complained of this to the High Priest and scribes. The Jewish priest Athonios, out of spite and hatred for the Mother of Jesus of Nazareth, wanted to topple the funeral bier on which lay the body of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, but an angel of God invisibly cut off his hands, which had touched the bier. Seeing such a wonder, Athonios repented and with faith confessed the majesty of the Mother of God. He received healing and joined the crowd accompanying the body of the Mother of God, and he became a zealous follower of Christ.
When the procession reached the Garden of Gethsemane, then amidst the weeping and the wailing began the last kiss to the all-pure body. Only towards evening were the Apostles able to place it in the tomb and seal the entrance to the cave with a large stone.
For three days they did not depart from the place of burial, praying and chanting Psalms. Through the wise providence of God, the Apostle Thomas was not to be present at the burial of the Mother of God. Arriving late on the third day at Gethsemane, he lay down at the tomb and with bitter tears asked that l he might be permitted to look once more upon the Mother of God and bid her farewell. The Apostles out of heartfelt pity for him decided to open the grave and permit him the comfort of venerating the holy relics of the Ever-Virgin Mary. Having opened the grave, they found in it only the grave wrappings and were thus convinced of the bodily ascent of the Most Holy Virgin Mary to Heaven” (cf. https://www.oca.org/saints/lives/2021/08/15/102302-the-dormition-of-our-most-holy-lady-the-mother-of-god-and-ever-v)
The Visual Elements of the Icon
Hē Koimēsis tēs Theotokou, in Greek, “The Dormition of the Theotokos”
The Dormition of the Theotokos
The Dormition of the Mother of God
The Holy Dormition
In the mid-to-lower center of the icon, we find the figure of the Mother of God. She is lying on her death bed. It is a rare occasion, indeed, to see a holy figure depicted iconographically with their eyes closed. The Mother of God in the icon of her Dormition is one such instance. Another, if you can recall, would be the image(s) of our Savior in the icons of Extreme Humility and the Crucifixion. In both instances, the figure depicted is dead, hence, the closed eyes. Remember, although it has become common to refer to icons as “windows into Heaven,” that is, as depicting the glorified images of the saints, the angels, the Mother of God, and our Lord, this is not necessarily the case, as the icons of the Great Feasts attest to well enough. Icons depict a true reality, and as a part of this reality: holy figures. In the icon of her Dormition, the Mother of God has, in fact, died. The death, the translation of the soul of the Mother of God, and the bodily assumption of the Mother of God are all realities which this icon depicts and this feast commemorates.
Noteworthy: the body of the Mother of God is hallowed. In the icon, the soul and the body of the Mother of God receive independent depictions. Nonetheless, the body of the Mother of God is hallowed. The icon clearly communicates to the reader that the sanctification of the human person is both a physical and a spiritual phenomenon. Our souls and bodies are capable of being transformed by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Depicted immediately above the Mother of God on her death bed is the image of our Lord, Jesus Christ. He is depicted in his “garments of glory,” which we have seen in other such icons as the Ascension and the Transfiguration. He is surrounded by a mandorla, which radiates the divine light and the divine energies, and which suggests that Christ has appeared from Heaven for such an occasion as this: to receive the soul of his holy Mother, who is depicted as a babe in his arms. The one who once held the infant Christ in her arms is now held as an infant by Christ in his arms. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes as an infant in the manger. Now she is wrapped in swaddling clothes (also reminiscent of burial garments) in the arms of her Lord. Now that Christ has “trampled down death by death,” death becomes for us, as for the Mother of God, a means of birth, a means of entering into eternal life. This depiction of the newly deceased as an infant is not entirely unique to the icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos. It is actually very common to depict the souls of the newly deceased, iconographically, as swaddled babes. However, the image of Christ carrying the infant into heaven is typically replaced by the image of the deceased’s guardian angel or the Archangel Michael.
Occasionally, surrounding the image of Christ in glory (in the perimeter of the mandorla), are angels, archangels, and seraphim. Their presence further signifies that Christ has come from Heaven to receive his Mother therein. However, if you recall the traditional narrative of the Dormition, we are told that “… accompanying the pure soul of the God-betrothed and with reverent awe for the Queen of Heaven, the angels exclaimed: ‘Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee, blessed art Thou among women!’ … The Heavenly gates were raised, and meeting the soul of the Most Holy Mother of God, the Cherubim and the Seraphim glorified Her with joy.” The angelic hosts who have “longed to look into” (cf. 1 Pet 1:12) the salvation of mortal men now witness in the person of the Mother of God a mortal glorified.
Surrounding the bed of the Mother of God are the holy Apostles and disciples of the Lord. Depending on the icon, we may see all of the Apostles standing around the Theotokos, or we may see some standing while others are appearing on the scene by means of the power of the Holy Spirit. They will be riding on the clouds, upborne by the angels who accompany them as their “divine transport.” Canonically, in keeping with the written, material evidence for the events of the feast of the Dormition, eleven of the Apostles will be depicted: ten of the original Twelve, excluding Judas and St. Thomas, but including the last of the Apostles: the Apostle Paul (who we have already seen as a part of the “choir of the Apostles” in the icons of the Ascension and Holy Pentecost). Ss. Peter and Paul are usually depicted at the head and the feet of the Mother of God, as the pillars of the Church. St. Peter will be recognizable by the censer in his hand.
In addition to the eleven Apostles, we will often see four men in episcopal vestments (note the omophorion). These bishops include St. James, the Brother of the Lord, who was the first bishop of Jerusalem and was presumably still alive and serving in his episcopal see at the time of the repose of the Theotokos, as well as a number of the disciples of St. Paul who became bishops of the early Church: Ss. Timothy, Hierotheus, and Dionysius the Areopagite.
Lastly, we may find as constituents of the crowd the three female attendants who served the Mother of God and who accompanied her from Golgotha to her residence in Jerusalem after she had received the news of her impending death from the Archangel Gabriel: Sepphora, Abigail, and Jael.
In some iconographic depictions of the events of the feast, we may find a variety of things placed in the foreground, specifically, in front of the death bed of the Theotokos. In some depictions, we will find candles, as an allusion to the fact that, at the time of her repose, “… a number of candles were burning” (per the written tradition), but also, because the holy Virgin was the “Mother of the Light,” even in death.
In other icons, we may find the figure of the high priest Anthonios, who during the great funeral procession for the Mother of God attempted to overturn her bier. Standing beside Anthonios will be an angel of the Lord, wielding a sword, who in response to his wicked attempt did cut off the hands of the high priest.
The Theology of the Icon
The Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is the last feast of the Church’s liturgical year. The liturgical year begins with the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, and ends with her repose. It cannot be overemphasized that the liturgical year of the Orthodox Christian Church is the story of our salvation, and although we look to our Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, as the one who saves, we simultaneously look to his Mother as a primary example of what it means for humanity to be transformed by divinity, of what it means to wholly give ourselves over to the will of the Almighty, of what it means to live a life fully saturated in the grace of the Holy Spirit of God.
We have said in previous lessons that the icons of the feasts of the Ascension and Holy Pentecost are icons of the Church. The Church is where the unhallowed come to be made holy. The Church is where those persons who have received the grace of the God are trained, and discipled, instructed, and empowered to go back into the world to preach the Gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Church is the place where we meet God and commune with one another. Christ is our head, and his Mother is… well, our Mother. Moreover, the icon of the feast of the Transfiguration (and remember, these feasts are laid out, masterfully and intentionally, in succession of one another in the life of the Church) shows to us the God-intended end of man. The icon of the feast of the Dormition communicates to us, then, that it is all possible. That is to say, Christ has come to transfigure the nature of man, to communicate divinity to humanity. In the image of the Mother of God, held in the arms of her Son, hallowed, translated bodily to heaven, as a sign of the promise of the bodily resurrection to come, this divine communion is realized.
In the Orthodox tradition, in Orthodox theology, Mary is not so unlike you and I. She is holy, and is so from infancy, but this is not the result of divine intervention. She is not exempted from the effects of the original sin—death, travail, temptation—but through her humility, her obedience to her parents, her submission to the divine will, her loving and maternal care of the Son of God, her patient endurance of the suffering of her son upon the cross, her faithful attendance to the ministry of the Apostles: through all these things she received the gift of the grace of the Holy Spirit, and at the end of her life, she was welcomed into Paradise as one transfigured. The Virgin Mary’s holiness is not magical; rather, it is the result of a life lived in communion with God. And this is what the Church offers to us, through her sacraments, her fellowship, and her worship. The Church, in her yearly rhythms, retells the story of our salvation, and calls us to become more than observers of it, but truly, participants in it.