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Dormition, Meditation of Icon

Dormition, Meditation of Icon

A Reflection on the Feast of the Assumption

– Virginia Kimball

The following contribution on the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a contemplation on a fifteenth-century Greek Orthodox icon painted by iconographer Andreas Ritzos and now located in the Galleria Sabaudo of Turin. The icon originated in Heraklion, Crete.

Christianity holds forth a surprising happiness and promise of joy. It describes and offers a mystery of life that is full and forever. The magnificent Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary celebrated on August 15 proclaims the deepest and most profound of these Christian mysteries and promises. Virgin Mary--the Bearer of God who was the first and best disciple of her Son--lived a long life in the presence of God. She experienced a resurrection after falling asleep in death (called Dormition) and a transport to Heaven (called Metestiseen, Assumption). Remarkably, this is the joy that lies in wait for all other disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ whose bodies will rise at the end of time and be with God in Heaven forever.

Let us examine the details of the Assumption of Our Blessed Virgin Mary in the tradition and legend of the event of her falling asleep and transport to Heaven as found in the icon and liturgy of the ancient Church. At the beginning, understanding that God entered into the human realm to stamp out death and bring life without end to humanity, we see this believing young Hebrew mother as the first person since Adam and Eve to experience realization of God's full life ... herself receiving life without end both physically and spiritually in unity with God the Creator, a glory forever and ever. At the end of time, all those judged to be living in the presence of God, who is Life Eternal, will also receive this remarkable eternal gift.

The spiritual powers receive her with honors due to God,
and she who is truly the mother of Life departs unto life,
the lamp of Light which no man can approach, the salvation
of the faithful and the hope of our souls

(The Feast of Dormition, Great Vespers, Lete, Tone 2*).

Contemplating the Ritzos Icon:

Our reflection centers on a fifteenth-century icon painted by iconographer Andreas Ritzos and now housed in the Galleria Sabaudo, Turin, but originating in Heraklion, Crete. It portrays not only tradition carried from early times but also legendary material which was added through the ages. As a whole, we see Mary lying on her death bed, surrounded by angels and saints, church leaders, bishops, evangelists, dear friends and neighbors, and apostles coming on their way on a cloud. Around the entire icon there is a glow of gold and reds - representing the burst of the new kingdom and the surge of life. It is a scene crowded with both earthly and heavenly members of creation, coming to see the fulfillment of Christ's word.

Come, let us all sing hymns to her noble and holy body that has contained the invisible Lord (Great Vespers, Aposticha, Tone 4*).

It is not hard to see a resemblance of this icon to the Nativity icon with mountains in the distance. Here, the structure of the lofty mountains (representing contact between God and humanity) are replaced by a large mandorla shape--a small one outlining a glow of divinity around Christ connected to the flow of the Spirit indicated by a bright ray and a large mandorla filled with singing angels. From ancient eras, including pre-Christian times, the almond-shaped mandorla has been an artistic symbol used to designate a space surrounding a holy sacred persons. So, here the larger mandorla encompasses the realm of heaven and the small mandorla the aura of Christ. To the left and right in the upper portion of the icon we see the New Zion, decorated with the sprigs of new life remembering the Garden of Life. Floating across these houses, perhaps the rounded Romanesque arch on the left representing the ancient Temple which has now become the House of the Living Christ in the World, we see two clouds carrying the apostles. At the peak of the larger mandorla we see six wings around an angel face. At the very center of the top of the icon, we find a time-lapse glimpse at the Virgin Mary being carried into the open gates of Heaven itself.

Cry out, O David, and tell us, what is this present feast about which you sang in the book of Psalms? And David says, "Christ has carried up into the heavenly mansions her who bore Him without seed. I sang of her in the Psalms calling her 'daughter, bride of God and virgin'. Therefore, mothers, daughters and brides of Christ, rejoice and call out, "Hail to you, O Lady, who have been translated to the Kingdom on high."
(Orthros [Morning Prayer], Sessional Hymns after the First Reading from the Psalter, Tone 4*).

Contemplating the bier:

We see the beloved disciple, understood to be John the Evangelist, who bends his head near to the virgin--calling to mind the parallel biblical passage (John 13: 23-25) where the beloved disciple places his head on the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper table. It should be noted that many of the details in legendary and apocryphal Christian writings parallel the biblical events. As Christ prepared for his death with the nearness of his beloved friend John, the same friend attends to the body of Christ's mother. It is hard to tell whether this detail is historically accurate according to tradition, or a legendary idea that spiritually connects the death of Christ to the death of His Mother. It should be noted that the bed, lined with a brilliant red mat which Virgin Mary lies upon, reminds us of the Nativity icon. There and here we see a parallel motif of life coming into a world of death. Candles burning brightly in front of the bier represent light in a world of darkness, proclaiming the theme of "life" and "light." Christ will give Virgin Mary who sleeps in death new life which is metaphorically described as "light." "In Him was life, and the life was the light of men." (John 1:4)

For every gift that enlightens us comes from You, Enlightener of our souls, who dwelt in her ever-virginal womb and lifted her up to the eternal life.
(Orthros [Morning Prayer] Ikos following Ode 6*).

One of the details from the early Patristic homilies and the legends of the apocrypha relates a powerful healing that came from touching the bier of Mary. Again, it may be a historical detail passed along in tradition, or it may be a symbolic detail teaching God as the source of healing and life.

Come, O faithful, let us approach the tomb of the Mother of God, and let us embrace it, touching it sincerely with the lips and eyes and forehead of the heart. Let us draw abundant gifts of healing grace from this ever-flowing fount.
(Orthros, Ode 9*).

Contemplating Christ in the mandorla:

What is it that Christ holds in his hands in a lifting motion? In many ways it reminds us of the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in the Nativity icon. But from the symbolism of Byzantine iconography, we know it is the soul of Virgin Mary that Christ takes unto Himself. The baby is noticeably white which symbolizes a presence in Heaven, with God. This Christian symbolism was borrowed from the ancient pagan world where white was used as a color consecrated to the gods. Pythagorus writes that white should be used in burial as a sacred sign of immortality (Sendler, p. 153*). It is also tied to the idea of light which stands for life, light in a world of darkness and sin (separation from God), life in a world of death (separated from Life Itself). We also see that Christ Himself is robed in white.

And your Son received your pure soul into His spotless hands
(Orthros [Morning Prayer, Praises, Tone 4*).

Contemplating apostles arriving on a cloud and the women in the window:

After the Ascension of Christ and Pentecost, tradition says that the apostles met and divided up into various apostolic missions around the known world. From the book of Acts, we learn of their long journeys and hard work in taking the gospel to all they could reach and teach. The age of the Virgin Mary at her death according to Fathers of the Church is said to have ranged from fifty-seven to seventy-two years, from forty-three to fifty-seven years from the time of the birth of Christ. It is recounted that she died after the conversion of Dionysius because the tradition says that he was present along with the holy apostles at her death. So, here, we have a gathering of the apostles called from their work in building the Church of Christ about ten to twenty years after his death.

In this small picture we clearly see two women at the windows of the house who observe the scene with obvious sorrow. The ancient tellings of the dormition tell us that Virgin Mary's close friends and relatives wailed and wept at the event of her death. She calmed them in their fears and told them she would always care for them even though she was departing to be again with her Son in heaven. In some accounts, she tells them she will ask permission from her Son to return to earth when they are in need, particularly in need of knowing her Son.

Carried to Zion, as upon a cloud, the company of the Apostles gathered from the ends of the earth to minister to you, O Virgin. You are the swift cloud from which the Most High God, the Sun of Justice, shone forth upon those who lay in darkness and the shadow of death.
(Orthros [Morning Prayer] Ode 5 following the Hypacoi*).

Contemplating the cloud:

In the plan of God, it was important to keep alive the fervor and closeness of those who believed in Christ. Looking with mindfulness at this tiny illustration, we see the apostles reaching toward Mary and yet turning to one another for mutual support in their grief. The prayers of Vespers tell us why the tradition speaks of a mysterious miracle, the arrival of the apostles from far-flung lands--carried in a cloud. Perhaps we can reflect on the pillar of fire and cloud that preceded the Holy of Holies in the desert. Now the Holy of Holies is Jesus, and it is the preaching and teaching of the apostles that escorts Him into the future and the growing kingdom of the eschaton and the ever flowing fountain of God's Life.

Contemplating Mary in Heaven:

An unusual thing about Byzantine icons is the way in which the phenomenon of time is portrayed. Sequenced events occur all in the same plane as the eye moves around the icon--images which are actually meant to be a window to the unseen reality of life. We have seen the soul of Virgin Mary taken into her Son's hands. Here, we find her physical body being lifted by the angels into open doors of the Realm of God beyond.

The earthly heaven takes up her dwelling in a heavenly and imperishable land. ... The gates of heaven were opened wide and the angels sang, as Christ received the virgin treasure of His own Mother
(Orthros [Morning Prayer] Ode 4 following Hypacoi*).

Notice her arms are wide and she is bending toward the earth still caring for all those who are now the Mystical Body of Christ--her Son in the world. We may understand her as the Platytera, one whose body held the God of the universe--wider than the heavens. She prays in early Christian style in the orans position (arms extended out). She is the woman who will constantly draw all to her Son and eventually to the realm she now enters.

Wherefore, O most pure Mother of God, forever alive with your Son, the Source of Life, do not cease to intercede with Him that He may guard and save your people from every trouble, for you are our intercessor
(Vespers, Tone 8 before the Entrance*).

Contemplating Peter, who leads the prayer:

Who might the man incensing the bier and leading the prayer be? It is Peter. The apostles asked who should lead them in prayer during the funeral and Peter was chosen. We see Peter as the father of the fledgling church, the one who represents all those gathered, the one who offers a sanctification of the holy bed. Behind the head of the bier, we find Paul, Dionysius, Timothy, Hierotheus and others mentioned in the tradition.

Let the trumpets of the Apostles ring out today, and let the voices of men sound praises in many languages. Let the sky re-echo, shining with infinite light; and let the angels honor with hymns the Dormition of the Virgin
(Orthros [Morning Prayer], Ode 5*).

Contemplating a choir of angels holding torches of light:

Alongside the dedicated women who followed Jesus, we discover a band of angels bearing torches of light. The icon shows us that there is no end to the light that comes into the world with the promise of Christianity. The halos abound in gold radiance and the torches light the way of life for all creation, signaled in this marvellous event of the falling asleep of Virgin Mary. We learn--also in the liturgy of the Hours--that there was a magnificent sound of heavenly voices accompanying the funeral and transportation of Mary to Heaven.

O Virgin, your Son has made you dwell in the Holy of Holies as a bright candlestick, flaming with immaterial Fire, as a golden censer burning with divine Coal, as the vessel of manna, the rod of Aaron, and the table written by God, as a holy ark and the table of the Bread of Life.
(Orthros [Morning Prayer] Ode 6*).

At your glorious Dormition, the heavens rejoice and the armies of angels exult.
(Orthros [Morning Prayer] Praises, Tone 4*).

Contemplating the angel with six wings:

Traditionally, in ancient iconography, angels are predominantly portrayed through the significant profusion of wings. These creatures represent the guardians of the Holy of Holies, God's effort to keep the Tree of Life protected until the end of time. Remember, of the trees in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve ate only of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The gift of true and everlasting life was kept by God, in God's eternal plan, to be fully received only in the end of time. This gift of life is described in the final book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation. Here, in the icon, the six-winged creature flutters at the top of the larger mandorla--symbolizing that Christ has brought new life and His mother is the first to realize the new eschaton, the beginning of humanity's journey in the final days of the Kingdom to the Tree of Life.

Behold, all the heavenly hierarchies--the Dominations, Thrones, Principalities, Virtues, Powers, Cherubim and Seraphim--sing a hymn of glory to your Dormition; all human races rejoice at your glory; and kings, together with the angels and archangels, sing out to you: "Hail, Woman full of grace, the Lord is with you: the Lord who, because of you, bestows great mercy upon the world!"

© This material was prepared by Virginia M. Kimball, who received her Doctorate in Sacred Theology at The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute in 2003. She teaches at the Religious Studies Department, Merrimack College, North Andover, Massachusetts, and can be reached by email at:

* Menaion, August. Service Books of the Byzantine Churches (Newton Centre, Massachusetts: Sophia Press, 1994).
* Sendler, Egon. The Icon, Image of the Invisible (Torrance, California: Oakwood Publications, 1981).

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