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n Byzantine icons and Western medieval art, the most common deathbed scene is that of the Virgin Mary. In her study of Marian iconography, Gertrud Schiller reproduced more than 100 images of Mary reclining in bed surrounded by the apostles who grieve, pray, and in late medieval art perform the rites for the dying. In these images, Jesus either stands at the bedside or hovers above it, and holds Mary’s soul in the form of a young child. This scene reflects the belief that Mary was the mother of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, and therefore enjoyed the privilege of an especially holy death.
Yet the Bible says nothing about Mary’s death. This silence, combined with growing devotion to Mary, allowed new material to flourish. The deathbed scene is derived from apocryphal narratives describing Mary’s last days and dying, as well as her funeral, burial, resurrection, and assumption into heaven. Versions of this story survive in Syriac and Greek texts dating from the third to the fifth centuries. Emperor Maurice (582–602) set August 15 for the feast of Mary’s Dormition (Koimesis, or “falling asleep”) throughout the Byzantine church, and since the late seventh century the Roman church has celebrated Mary’s Assumption on the same date. Once the feast was officially placed in church calendars, its narratives shaped preaching, doctrine, and art.
In the earliest surviving Greek sermon celebrating Mary’s death, the bishop John of Thessalonica (610–649) claims to have edited the different accounts of her death and to tell “only what truly happened” (Daley 1998, p. 49). An angel told Mary that she would die in three days. She summoned her relatives and friends to stay with her for two nights, and asked them to “sing praise instead of mourning.” The apostle John arrived, followed by the other apostles who had been carried on clouds from all corners of the earth. During the second night Peter preached, urging all present to “take courage” from Mary and to live virtuously in preparation for their own deaths. The next day Mary lay down in her bed, and Jesus arrived with many angels. When he and the angel Michael entered Mary’s room, “Mary brought the course of her life to its fulfillment, her face turned smilingly towards the Lord. And the Lord took her soul and placed it in the hands of Michael” (Daley 1998, p. 63). The funeral followed, but was delayed when an enraged chief priest attacked the bier; his hands stuck to the bier and were amputated until he repented, praised Mary in Hebrew, and was healed. Three days after the burial, the apostles opened Mary’s sarcophagus, “but found only her grave-garments; for she had been taken away by Christ, the God who became flesh from her, to the place of her eternal, living inheritance” (Daley 1998, p. 67).
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