Dormition — two old posts — one me snarky about modern Catholicism; the other Rebecca West on Dormition fresco at Gračanica

15 Aug

“Today is the Feast of the Dormition… ”


15 Aug

…the day that the Virgin Mary, a mortal woman, “fell alseep” — died.

Icon of the Dormition from one of the Churches of the Pecherskaya Lavra monastery complex in Kiev.

Marianism, which it would be absurd to argue doesn’t exist in the eastern Church (see “…απορώ και εξίσταμαι.”), has for many centuries been significantly more central to Catholicism than it has been to Orthodox beliefs.  The Orthodox Church either couldn’t (under Muslim rule) or didn’t need to (Russia) engage the challenges of Protestantism or modernity like the Catholic Church did.  That has led, in many Western eyes, to sterile ritualism and ossification.  It has led, in my eyes, to the freedom to remain a Church, and not a panel member at the Ethics Roundtable that most of Western Christianity has devolved into.

Catholicism met the first of the above challenges with the Inquisition and some of the most spectacular art in the entire human experience.  It met both challenges with a wave of renewed dogmatism.

In the case of the nineteenth century that meant dogmatism in the real sense of creating new dogmas (dogmas? dogmata?), all by itself, the way the Vatican has always done things.  One of those was Papal Infallibility.  And because, along with Phallus, Mother is perhaps the most exploitable symbol in the collective unconscious, the other two new dogmas were the Assumption of the Virgin and her Immaculate Conception.  Together with the miracle-ization of several Mary appearance locations in Europe, the new upgrade of these previously popular but unofficially held Catholic beliefs were intended to, and successfully did, provoke a hysterical wave of Marianism in the nineteenth century that I imagine the Vatican thought would keep its straying flock close to home.  (That’s why Concetta or Assunta or Fatima or Lourdes are more likely to be your grandmother’s or one of her friends’ names and not yours.)  The outcome of never correcting the hysteria created by that whole shameless propaganda strategy has manifested itself lately in a completely insane movement to have Mary declared Co-Salvatrix, or some such nonsense, with Jesus, which would just be heresy pure and simple to anyone concerned which such things.

The Orthodox Church has always assumed some kind of assumption of Mary into heaven — see above, there she is, already in her Son’s arms, in what are both swaddling clothes and a shroud, His mother and child at the same time — but has rejected officializing the belief.  It has vehemently rejected the entire idea of the Immaculate Conception, which refers to Mary’s conception, not Jesus’, as lots of people think.  The basis for that is that both ideas come dangerously close to deifying her — the Immaculate Conception especially because it pre-destines and pre-sacralizes her.  And that cancels out the essence of who Mary is: a brave and terrified Jewish girl who said “Yes” to God when He asked her to perform something unfathomable to any human mind, including her own.

So today is the day that girl died (there is no Greek or Slavic word for Assumption), which we commemorate happily because we know she’s in good hands (I know, that sounds a little glib…).  It’s the most important of the Virgin’s holidays in the Orthodox Church, probably because it’s in the middle of the summer and has long been associated with village festivals and, these days, with vacation time.  It’s a day when Athens is even emptier than it is at Easter, because practically the entire city is only one generation away from the villages they return to every year.

It’s also on the list-obsessed Catholic Church’s silly list of “Holy Days of Obligation,” which means you get a demerit if you didn’t go to church…because they just can’t let go of the idea that the way to “pack ’em in” is to obligate them.

Below are some photos of the exterior and unbelievably beautiful interior (I’ve never been so overwhelmed by the magnificence of an Orthodox Church in my life: “For this we know, that God dwells there among men…”) of the Cathedral of the Dormition in the Kremlin, Russia’s Westminster, where Tsars from Ivan the Terrible in 1547 till Nicholas II in 1896 were crowned. (click)


Rebecca West, on the fresco of the Dormition at Gračanica in Kosovo

15 Aug

From her magnificent Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia:


“Across one of the walls of Grachanitsa is shown the Falling Asleep of the Virgin Mary, the state which preceded her Assumption, a subject often treated by the Byzantines.  There is no man living today who, exploring his mind in the light of that idea, could draw out so much.

“In the foreground of the fresco is the Virgin lying on her bier.  By the lax yet immutable line is rendered the marvel of death, the death which is more than the mere perishing of consciousness, which can strike where there is no consciousness and annul a tree, a flower, an ear of corn.  Above her bier there shines a star of light; within it stands Christ, taking into his arms his mother’s soul in the likeness of a swaddled child.  Their haloes make a peaceful pattern, the stamp of a super-imperial power, within the angles of the star.  About them throngs a crowd of apostles and disciples, come hastily from the next world or from distant lands to attend the Virgin’s death, wearing their haloes as bubbling yet serene spheres.  On the edge of the crowd stand some bishops in their cross-covered mantles, rock-like with the endurance of the Church, which cannot be perturbed by the most lacerating grief, and still others, also in flowing garments but with bodies liquid with grief, and others, also in flowing garments but with bodies tautened by effort, low under the weight of the bier.  The background is full of angels as the Eastern Church loved to conceive them, ethereal messengers who are perpetually irradiated by the divine beauty and communicate its laws to flesh-bound man, a dream of perfect vision and unfrustrated will.

“The huge imaginative space occupied by this small fresco is washed by two swinging tides. There is a wave of such sincere and childish grief as children feel when their mothers die, that breaks and falls and ebbs; there is a rising sea of exaltation in the Son who can work all magic and cancel this death or any other, making glory and movement where stillness and the end seem to be ineluctable. The sides of the fresco are filled in with buildings, distorted with the most superb audacity in order to comply with the general pattern, yet solid and realistic in effect; we are amazed, as we all so often are during our lives, that our most prodigious experiences take place in the setting of the everyday world, that the same scenery should be used for the pantomine and the tragedy. Behind these buildings there is a firmament which evokes another recurrent amazement. It is the most astonishing of all the things which happen to us that anything should happen at all. It is incredible that there should be men and women, mothers and sons, biers and buildings, grief and joy; it would seem so much more probable that the universe should have as its sole packing empty nothingness. Existence in itself, taken at its least miraculous, is a miracle.”


One Response to “Dormition — two old posts — one me snarky about modern Catholicism; the other Rebecca West on Dormition fresco at Gračanica”


  1. The Greek national anthem INSIDE church | Jadde-ye-Kabir - August 15, 2020

    […] national anthem was apparently sung inside the church of the Virgin on the island of Tenos, on this, the feast of the Dormition (the Assumption in the West), perhaps the most important of the several holidays dedicated to […]

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