Development of the Liturgical Celebration of the Assumption

It is often stated: As the Church prays, so she believes. The great prayer of the Liturgy aided the development of the doctrine of the Assumption. There are sources which place the earliest celebration of the feast at Antioch from the fourth century on. O'Carroll writes: "The starting-point was Jerusalem. There was hesitancy and variation even in the name used for the feast as time passed: Dormition, Passing, and Assumption." Emperor Maurice established the feast of the Dormition for Constantinople on August 15, in the year 600. It was established fifty years later in Rome, where it had the special status of being celebrated with a procession.

The Coptic Church celebrated a feast in honor of Mary's death on January 16 by the mid sixth century, and her Assumption on August 9, as testified to in a homily of Theodosius, Monophysite patriarch of Alexandria.

Assumption of the Virgin
Church of Saint Bonnet, ca 1480

Theoteknos of Livias, a bishopric on the left bank of the Jordan, "speaks of the feast as the Assumption (Analepsis), not Dormition (Koimesis)." He says:

"If the God bearing body of the saint has known death, it has not, nevertheless, suffered corruption; it has been preserved from corruption and kept free from stain and it has been raised to heaven with her pure, spotless soul by the holy angels and powers." Further on he states: "It was fitting that the most-holy body of Mary, God-bearing body, receptacle of God, divinised, incorruptible, illuminated by divine grace and full of glory...should be entrusted to the earth for a little while and raised up to heaven in glory, with her soul pleasing to God." (p. 57)

By all accounts the Assumption was fully accepted and celebrated liturgically throughout the East. In the West, accounts of the Assumption liturgy and belief are variable. There is a liturgical prayer sent to Charlemagne by Pope Adrian which speaks of the Mother of God who "suffered temporal death, but nevertheless could not be held back by the bonds of death, she who brought forth your Son, Our Lord, incarnate from herself." (p. 57)

The Iconography of the Assumption East and West

To learn about the Assumption iconography of the East, The Mary Page is pleased to present a reflection on the Andreas Ritzos' icon of the Dormition from a Greek Orthodox point of view. You will find the reflection at:

A Reflection on the Feast of the Assumption

In the West, as a rule, images of the Assumption are found in the late Middle Ages. Only a few representations exist from the early and high Middle Ages. One such piece from pre-Carolingian times is a depiction of the Assumption on a golden breast cross stemming from the end of the seventh century (located now in Schloss Goluchow). A second piece is found on a fragment of fabric (Sens Cathedral Treasure) from the eighth century. The images of this period show Mary standing in the midst of the apostles as she is called home to heaven.

The later Latin translation of Melito and the Transitus, which were at times included in liturgical books and in books on the liturgy of the hours, are decorated with images of the Assumption in bridal array. This imagery, strongly influenced also by linking Mary to the bride in the Song of Songs and Psalm 44, slowly develop from the representation of the richly dressed "bridal" Mary, who is assumed into heaven, to representations of Mary receiving a crown upon her arrival in heaven.

It was only in the eleventh century that images (from the Reichenau School, Germany) begin to be produced in which Christ is not present at Mary's side to take her to heaven. Instead, Christ is in a mandorla far above her and angels are carrying a decree or scroll to her announcing her pending home-going. By the middle of the twelfth century, Mary, the richly dressed bride, represents the features of the praying Church. It is much later, that Mary is presented alone or with angels who assist her or acclaim.

Assumption of the Virgin
In the Museum of San Juan de Dios, Granada

Important to Assumption iconography is whether Mary rises "by herself" or is "assumed." Mary "rising" rather than being lifted up, is thought to represent the fulfillment of Mary's longing which literally lifts her to the heart of God. Her whole being longs for union with Christ.

Assumption (detail)

Here Titian has portrayed God the Father as the one who receives the Virgin as she is being lifted up on a cloud by the angels.

Return to Meditation on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary


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