Today I want to talk about icons of the Dormition, Uspenie in Slavic, Koimesis in Greek. It means “Falling Asleep.” The Dormition icon represents the death of Mary, mother of Jesus. We have already seen that many icons incorporate apocryphal elements. The Dormition type is based entirely on such “pseudepigraphal” writings, or to avoid the euphemism, writings forged under the names of noted figures in Christian history.
Here is an elaborate version of the Dormition:
In the center is Mary lying on a bier. In the sky above we see the Apostles arriving on clouds moved by angels, to be present at her death:
And then we see them after arrival, standing around her bier. So they are represented twice in the icon, to show two stages of time.
Directly above Mary stands Jesus, who holds Mary’s soul, depicted as an infant because she was just born into Heaven, on his left arm. Above Jesus is a red, winged angel of the cherubim rank.
The fellow whose head is visible at lower right in the image above is Dionysius the Areopagite. He wears the stole of a bishop, and often shown also are Timothy (the one known to the Apostle Paul) and Hierotheus. Some examples also include James, while other examples include saints of later periods.
In the clouds at the top, we see two angels waiting on the other side of the opened doors of Heaven. Their hands are covered with cloths, which is a sign of veneration for a sacred object or person:
Just below Mary’s bier is a man with his hands reaching upward. This, according to the old story, is Athonios (Iephonias in Greek examples), a Jew jealous of the honor shown Mary, who tried to push over the bier but was prevented from doing so by an angel with a sword, who cuts of Athonias’ hands. In this example his hands have not yet been cut off. In some examples, however, his hands are shown severed from his arms. This is an example of the anti-Semitism that one sometimes finds in Christian history and in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Those familiar with the New Testament will recognize that the story of the Dormition is nowhere found in it. It actually comes from extra-biblical spurious writings, primarily represented by the Account of St. John the Theologian of the Dormition of the Mother of God, a Greek text that is usually dated to the 6th century, though some would date it earlier (and which of course uses the name of the Apostle John to give a semblance of veracity). However Epiphanius of Salamis, who died c. 403, wrote in his Panarion 79:11, that nothing certain was known of the death of Mary, quite in contrast to the later, elaborate tale of the Dormition, in which we find the account of why and how the Apostles were brought to witness Mary’s death:
And she prayed, saying: My Lord Jesus Christ, who did deign through your supreme goodness to be born of me, hear my voice, and send me your apostle John, in order that, seeing him, I may partake of joy; and send me also the rest of Thy apostles, both those who have already gone to you, and those in the world that now is, in whatever country they may be, through your holy commandment, in order that, having beheld them, I may bless your name much to be praised; for I am confident that you hear your servant in everything.
And while she was praying, I John came, the Holy Spirit having snatched me up by a cloud from Ephesus, and set me in the place where the mother of my Lord was lying… And the three virgins came and worshipped… And the holy mother of God answered and said to me: The Jews have sworn that after I have died they will burn my body. And I answered and said to her: Your holy and precious body will by no means see corruption…
And the Holy Spirit said to the apostles: Let all of you together, having come by the clouds from the ends of the world, be assembled to holy Bethlehem by a whirlwind, on account of the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ; Peter from Rome, Paul from Tiberia, Thomas from hither India, James from Jerusalem. Andrew, Peter’s brother, and Philip, Luke, and Simon the Cananaean, and Thaddaeus who had fallen asleep, were raised by the Holy Spirit out of their tombs; to whom the Holy Spirit said: Do not think that it is now the resurrection; but on this account you have risen out of your tombs, that you may go to give greeting to the honour and wonder-working of the mother of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, because the day of her departure is at hand, of her going up into the heavens. And Mark likewise coming round, was present from Alexandria; he also with the rest, as has been said before, from each country. And Peter being lifted up by a cloud, stood between heaven and earth, the Holy Spirit keeping him steady. And at the same time, the rest of the apostles also, having been snatched up in clouds, were found along with Peter. And thus by the Holy Spirit, as has been said, they all came together.
Now obviously this is not an historical event. It is mythmaking, a part of the ever-increasing veneration of Mary that occurred in the Church after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire under Constantine and the influx into the Church of large numbers of pagans, accustomed to a mother goddess, who found in Mary a replacement. The earliest written example of Marian veneration is found on a damaged papyrus that dates no earlier than the 4th century to the second half of the 3rd century, and comes, not surprisingly, from Egypt, where formerly the Goddess Isis was very prominent, whose worship also spread into Rome:
The emended Greek version of the prayer (I have added an interlinear translation) reads:
Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν
We flee for refuge
Θεοτὸκε· τὰς ἡμῶν
O Birth-giver-of-God; our
ἱκεσίας μὴ παρ-
petitions do not
ίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει
despise in need
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνου
but from peril
Only Pure [One]
Only Blessed [One]
There are generally two versions of the Dormition icon. The first, like that above, shows the Apostles arriving on clouds as well as the scene of the angel cutting off the hands of Athonias. The second simplifies the type by omitting those elements.
The Dormition of the Mother of God is one of the major festivals of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and is found both in icons of the major Church festivals and, as we have seen, as a separate icon type.
A widespread, popular apocryphal tale of Mary descending into Hades before she ascended to Heaven came into Russia from the Byzantine Greek world, via Bulgaria. In it, Mary goes to the Mount of Olives and calls the Archangel Michael to take her down to Hades so she might see the torments sinful Christians were suffering there. Michael then acts as her guide through Hades (“Hell”), and shows her its various regions and gruesome tortures, much as Dante is led through Hell by the Roman poet Virgil. The difference is that Mary then beseeches God to be merciful, but he only relents to a certain degree, holding off the tortures of the condemned to give them a rest between Easter and All Saints Day (or Good Thursday through Pentecost– accounts vary) Oddly, it is specifically mentioned that Mary refuses to intercede for “the unbelieving Jews” in Hades, which no doubt contributed to the unfortunate antisemitism that so often appears in Slavic countries. It is likely that Dante got the idea for his guided tour through Purgatory, Hell, and Heaven via this apocryphal tale as brought to Italy by Bulgarian Manicheans. The tale of Mary’s descent to Hades is mentioned in Dostoevskiy’s novel The Brothers Karamazov.