A Birth, a Death, and a Portrait of Mary You’ve Never Seen

At Christmas I’m haunted by T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi.” The tone of the poem is so different from the jovial jingle of silver bells or the nostalgic calm of “Silent Night.” In Eliot’s imagination, the wise men’s visit to Bethlehem was more than a pilgrimage to worship, it was a reckoning. Holy and terrifying, this birth required a sober reassessment of everything—of history, of comfortable patterns of living, of the value and meaning of life. The magi are faced with the reality that after this coming, life cannot go on as it had before.

This set down
This: we were led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

Eliot’s poem is meant to be about the wise men’s experience, but this year I found myself imagining what Mary would have thought reading this poem. I suspect she would have been a kindred spirit with the magi, that she would have understood every word.

While Mary understood the hope of Jesus’s birth expressed so magnificently in the Magnificat, the song she composed and sang in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth, she also perceived his coming would have painful implications. When she and Joseph took Jesus to the temple to be circumcised, she held her eight-day old son as Simeon prophesied, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed, and a sword will pierce through your own soul also…” (Luke 2:34-35). Revelation is rarely simply calm and bright; often, it’s painful. And for Mary, this birth would be a death—a sword would pierce her soul.

Following the trajectory of Mary’s life, she becomes one among a company of fellow disciples. Her last appearance in the New Testament is in the first chapter of Acts. After Jesus’s ascension, we find her in an upper room united in prayer with the disciples, faithful women, and Jesus’s brothers (Acts 1:12-14). The implication, of course, is that Mary is a believer—she, too, like the disciples had found life through faith in her son. In our last glimpse of her, she’s kneeling in prayer surrounded by the men and women who had given up everything to follow him.

The portrait of Mary at Chora

Although Luke doesn’t tell us about the end of Mary’s life, Christian communities began commemorating her death (called Dormition in Greek) in the fifth or sixth century. The art portraying the moment she “fell asleep” depicts Jesus’s advent—his arrival—to receive his mother’s soul into his arms. The first time I saw the portrait of Mary stretched out on her death bed, I had no idea what to make of it. Questions flooded my mind: Why was this image incorporated into the interior decoration of a church? Was there any significance in it’s placement over the door exiting the church so that it was the last thing worshipers saw as they left? Who was in the crowd around Mary? And most confounding: Why was Jesus holding a baby swaddled in white? Who was the infant in the Savior’s arms?

Dormition of the Virgin at Chora church in Istanbul
The Dormition of the Virgin at Chora Museum in Istanbul, Turkey

In Istanbul, the most extraordinary example of this portrait of Mary is in Chora monastery (now a museum known in Turkish as Kariye Müzesi). In the fourteenth century Theodore Metochites financed the restoration and redecoration of the monastery and church complex creating what art historian John Lowden calls, for good reason, “one of the supreme achievements of Byzantine art.” It isn’t the scale of the church that’s awe-inspiring. In fact, the worship space is quite small, especially in comparison to a monumental building like Hagia Sophia. But what makes Chora special is the art.

In the fourteenth century, mosaics covered the surfaces of the dome, the apse, and all the upper walls of the naos, the main chapel. Today, only three panels survive including the mosaic of Mary’s death—the Dormition of the Virgin—the only mosaic left of a cycle of twelve images that marked the major feasts of the Eastern Orthodox church year. The Annunciation—the moment Mary is told she will receive the Son into her womb—began the cycle and, in the end, the Son receives his mother’s soul into his heavenly kingdom.

In Orthodox churches there was incredible attention given to the relationships between images that decorated church interiors. The Dormition, showing Mary’s soul held in her son’s arms, appears in Chora above the western door, directly opposite the eastern apse, which would have been decorated with a mosaic of Mary holding Jesus in her arms. The two images intentionally mirror each other, but the positions of Christ and his mother are reversed—in one Mary holds her son, and in the other Jesus cradles an infant representing Mary’s soul.

At Chora, mosaic inscriptions identify Mary as the “container (chora) of the uncontainable.” This paradoxical name for her reflects the reality that by this time Mary had become the ultimate symbol of one of the central tenants of Christian orthodoxy—the mystery of the Incarnation—the belief that God became flesh, that the uncontainable God was contained for nine months in the body of a woman.

Art depicting Mary was a reminder that the fullness of God became human flesh, and that, for a time, the uncontainable Creator allowed himself to be carried, contained, circumscribed in the body of a woman. In an image above the door in the outer narthex of Chora, Mary looks full, her body filled with divine presence; but in the mosaic of the Dormition in the chapel, Mary appears empty, her body rigid and flat, the contour of her physical form altogether indiscernible under the stiff, angular folds of her mantel. Her body may be spent, but her life is not at an end. Now her being is contained within Christ’s glory; her life is enveloped by the mandorla of light that encircles him. The soul of the mother finds its resting place in the Son.

Bringing the past and future into the present

We might expect this sublime moment of Mary’s transition to the heavenly realm to be a private one between a mother and her Son; instead, it is strikingly public. The apostles crowd around Mary’s funeral bier, gesturing, praying, worshiping, their expressions marked by emotion, even those who have already been martyred are resurrected so that they can attend. There’s a noticeable naturalism about this scene of mourning. Even with the flat golden background so characteristic of Byzantine mosaics, we feel that we are in a natural space with characters animated by real emotion. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries there was a noticeable movement towards naturalism in Byzantine art, a change that was commented on by writers of the period who began to speak of “living painting.” Painting began to be compared to poetry “which touches the feelings by arousing persons and events to life. That which has a soul can speak to the soul.”

Worshipers of the time would have understood that they were being invited to enter into the drama of this scene—the circle around Mary’s body is noticeably incomplete without the inclusion of those gathered together in the church to worship. According to Orthodox sensibilities the image of Mary’s death was not primarily a depiction of a historical event; rather, the image is meant to bring a past event into the present moment. Art historian Hans Belting explains that in the medieval context, “the image reached into the immediate experience of God in past history and likewise ahead to a promised time to come.”

When heaven comes down

Detail of the Dormition of the Virgin in Chora church
Detail of the Dormition of the Virgin in the chapel of the Chora Museum, Istanbul, Turkey

One of the most powerful elements of this image is the mingling of heavenly and earthly space. Christ descends accompanied by a host of angels who fill his surrounding mandorla, the circle of blinding light radiating from his being. Christ occupies the center of the entire composition—his figure, draped in robes composed of glittering gold, becomes the source of light for the whole scene so that shadows fall on the backs of the disciples on both the right and left of the panel while their faces are illuminated by their Savior.

Taking a cue from Hans Belting who has called the icon a “painted hymn,” this icon is like a painted sermon. For in this mosaic Christ radiates light and life, attributes of the Son drawn from the gospels and commented on by theologians like Gregory Nazianzus. “He is called ‘Light,’” explains Gregory, “because he is the brilliance of souls pure in mind and life. If ignorance and sin are darkness, knowledge and inspired life must be light. He is ‘Life,’ because he is ‘Light,’ constituting and giving reality to every thinking being.” But there is more: Jesus embodies the meaning of the mosaic inscription most often associated with his icon at Chora—he is “the dwelling place (chora) of the living.”

There is in this image a glimmer of the eschatological hope that one-day heaven will come down to earth and the two realms, disjointed since the fall, will be reunited as one. At that time “night will be no more,” John prophesies in the Revelation, “They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light (Rev. 22:5). The Byzantine expectation of the parousia, the Second Coming of Christ when death will be swallowed up in life and the bodies of the faithful will be resurrected, is on display in the adjacent parakklesion, funerary chapel. In the fresco decorating the semi-dome of the apse Christ grasps Adam and Eve’s hands, lifting their mature, revivified bodies out of sarcophagi—their resurrection symbolizing the abolition of all the effects of the fall, the end of sin, brokenness and suffering, the ultimate restoration and renewal of creation.

In the mosaic at Chora, though, there is a careful balance between the grim reality of death and the hope of eternal life. Mary’s humanity and vulnerability are on full display. The frail appearance of her lifeless physical body and the separation of her soul from her “earthly tent” is a sure indication that all is not yet right, that the final resurrection is still to come, the ultimate hope not yet fulfilled.

Death is not an end

In his second letter to the Corinthian church Paul tells a congregation who was evidently speculating about the nature of life after death that while we are “at home in the body we are away from the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6). For Mary, of all people, this separation must have been intensely painful. As a mother she must have longed to be reunited with her first-born; as a believer in her son’s resurrection, she would have had cause to hope that she would be. Jesus’ own teaching and that of the apostles after him makes it exceedingly clear that death is not an ending. Consider, for example, Paul’s insights into the Christian expectation,

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

Mary’s body may bow to death, but in the very instance of her physical expiration we witness her heavenly birth—the point that occupies the very center of the composition. At the heart of the mosaic of the Dormition of the Virgin at Chora, just as at the heart of the gospel, there is a promise that death does not triumph over life. Our souls do not have to be bound or annihilated or homeless; they can find their home in Christ.

The conclusion of T.S. Eliot’s journey of the magi describes the moment the wise men realize that after meeting Jesus, they no longer feel at home in their familiar haunts because they find themselves dislocated from this world with its anxieties and idols. Instead, they have found their home in Christ. Devotion to him is costly because it demands a death, but in dying they’ve found another sort of life.

We returned to our palaces, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

—T.S. Eliot, ”The Journey of the Magi”


If you want to learn more about Byzantine art and the meaning of the image of the Dormition of the Virgin, check out the following sources that informed this essay:

John Lowden, Early Christian & Byzantine Art (New York: Phaidon, 1997).

Henry Maquire, “The Cycle of Images in the Church,” in Heaven on Earth: Art and the Church in Byzantium, ed. Linda Safran (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 1998), 121-151.

Robert Ousterhout, “The Holy Space: Architecture and the Liturgy” in Heaven on Earth: Art and the Church in Byzantium, ed. Linda Safran (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 1998), 81-120. Also see Ousterhout for a discussion of word-play associated with the term ‘chora’ and for its connection to Byzantine hymnography in “The Virgin of the Chora: An Image and Its Contexts.”  In The Sacred Image East and West, eds. Robert Ousterhout and Leslie Brubaker (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 91-105.

“…the title ‘Theotokos’ was a liturgical acclamation of the Virgin Mary before it was ‘officially’ affirmed by the Council of Ephesus. For the Byzantines, theology is a liturgical act, the articulation of the Church’s experience of God in her life; and liturgy is a theological act, communion with God and therefore experience, or real knowledge of him…Theology is liturgy in thought; liturgy is theology in action.” Eric Perl, “‘…That Man Might Become God’: Central Themes in Byzantine Theology,” in Heaven on Earth: Art and the Church in Byzantium, ed. Linda Safran (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 1998), 39-57.

Epstein and Kazhdan document the shift from abstraction to naturalism in both literature and art in 11th and 12th c Byzantine culture. Kazhdan, A.P. and Ann Wharton Epstein. Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985.

Belting, Hans. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Discussing the practice of the ceremonial lighting certain images for veneration at the imperial monastery of Christ Pantocrator in Constantinople, Belting observes, “When the founder goes on to mention the lighting of icons, it turns out that by ‘icons’ he means not just panels but also such wall paintings as were found in prominent positions in the monastery and were venerated in the same way as panels…The icon of Mary’s death (koimesis), a wall mosaic above the main doorway in the inner west wall, was illuminated not only here but in another monastery, because ‘the grace of divine inspiration lies…on this icon.’ In churches of the Virgin the koimesis was the ‘feast of feasts.’”

For a full discussion of the variations between the three main Dormition traditions regarding the moment when Mary’s body and soul are reunited in Paradise, see Shoemaker, Stephen J. Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. (Palm traditions, 37-38; Bethlehem tradition, 51-52; Coptic, 58-59).

Taft, Robert F. Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It. Berkeley, CA: InterOrthodox Press, 2006.

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