On the Icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos
On August 15th, Orthodox Christians commemorate the Dormition, or “falling asleep”, of the Virgin Mary. The imagery and narrative of the icon of the Dormition comes from Holy Tradition as there is no scriptural account of her death. The icon is one through which we see gathered into a single frame and presented in a manner transcending time, the physical and spiritual events occurring during the time of the Virgin Mary’s death.
As the story goes, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary while she was praying at Golgotha. He foretold that in three days she would enter into rest. The Virgin Mary was overjoyed, and she prayed and gave thanks to God that soon she would be with her Son. The Lord heard her prayer and through it, He gathered far and wide all of the apostles and transported them through the clouds to her bedside.
After much bewilderment and joy at seeing each other again, the Apostles learned why they were brought together again. Each apostle approached for a blessing from the Virgin Mary while she praised them for their faith and endurance in preaching the Gospel of Christ. In a somber room thereafter, she peacefully gave up her soul.
This is the central moment in the icon. The grief stricken Apostles are crowded around the bed of the Virgin Mary. Paul’s disciples, Dionysius the Areopagite, Hierotheos, and Timothy can be seen in the background each holding the gospel. Mary’s maidservants, Sepphora, Abigail, and Jael are also present.
In the foreground, Paul bows reverently on the left while Peter bows and is censing on the right. John, the beloved apostle cared for Mary after Christ’s death, bows in mourning near the headrest.
At the moment of her passing, as heard in one of the hymns, all gazed fearfully at her body and were overcome with awe; causing Peter to cry out tearfully, “Oh Virgin, I see you clearly lying here supine, the life of all and I am struck with wonder, for in you did the delight of the life come to make his dwelling.”
The Virgin Mary’s soul thereafter passed over to the spiritual realm and was reunited with her Son. Christ is seen above her physical body and yet He is invisibly present, surrounded by the uncreated light, and unseen by those physically present. He holds an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, symbolizing the soul of the Virgin Mary being born into eternal life. A six-winged Seraphim hovers above, representing the bodiless host. In other versions of the icon, numerous angels are present and look on in wonder and awe at the entry into heaven of she who gave birth to God.
Later, the apostles sang spiritual hymns and followed the funeral procession to the tomb prepared in Gethsemane. By divine providence, the apostle Thomas arrived three days later and asked if he could reverence the Virgin Mary’s body once more. To the amazement of the Apostles, her body was nowhere to be seen when they opened her tomb. While this mysterious and miraculous matter has not been formally defined as a doctrine of the Church, it has long been part of Holy Tradition that the Virgin Mary’s body had been translated to heaven where she now resides with her Son.
St. Gregory Palamas offers a beautiful description of this translation, saying that the Virgin Mary was “taken up directly from the grave to the heavenly realm, from where she sends bright shafts of holy light and grace down to earth, illuminating all the space around the world and is venerated, admired, and hymned by all the faithful.” 1
The icon is usually being painted above the chief entrance to the nave, on the inner side, helping to remind us of our own death as we exit the sanctuary. But most of all, we are once more able to honor and admire the mother of the everlasting light, for it was she who through which life came into the world.
Video produced by Efstratios Papageorgiou
Written by Michael Gavalas
1. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Mount Thabor Publishing) page 293.