The Virgin Mary’s body “sleeps” as Jesus cradles her still-awake soul, in this anonymous 19th-century fresco from the 400-year-old Church of Debre Berhan Selassie in Gondar, Ethiopia.
The Dormition—literally, “falling asleep”—of Mary is an event recognized by both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches but is not related in the Bible. It appears instead in a late-fifth-century apocryphal text, the Transitus Mariae, or Book of the Death of the Holiest of Virgins, the Mother of God, which was based on earlier legends circulating among Christians in Ethiopia and the Near East.
In the Transitus Mariae, supposedly narrated by the evangelist John, after the crucifixion Mary prays daily to be reunited with her son in heaven, until finally the archangel Gabriel appears and tells her that her wish will soon be granted: “From this time, according to your request, you, having left the world, shall go to the heavenly places to your Son, into the true and everlasting life.”
Mary joyously returns to Bethlehem to prepare for her death. The apostles, having been scattered as missionaries to the ends of the earth, now are taken up in a great whirlwind and brought to her side in Bethlehem. Instead of dying, however, Mary painlessly falls asleep and Jesus descends, accompanied by angels, to take her animula, or soul, up to heaven.
The Dormition of the Virgin was a popular subject in both Western and Byzantine art. The two figures at far right in this Ethiopian fresco are probably Sts. Peter (with beard) and John. At upper left is an angel.