Byzantines termed the Virgin’s dispatch to heaven sometimes the koimesis (“falling asleep”), sometimes the analepsis (“assumption”), and sometimes metastasis (“change of place”), perhaps reflecting some uncertainty over the exact nature of this miracle. It is not recorded in any of the canonical scriptures and does not seem to have been known in the early church. The date for celebrating the Dormition was fixed on August 15th by the sixth century. The most detailed descriptions of the event are found in sermons from the seventh and eighth centuries.
It is interesting that the earliest images of the Koimesis that survive are not monumental images, but private devotional images in the form of tenth-century ivory icons such as this one. The iconography is already fully developed. The Virgin rests on a bier between two groups of apostles, who have been miraculously transported to Jerusalem from far-flung locations. The witnesses in this image actually number fifteen, as some ancient bishops such as Dionysios the Areopagite, Hierethios, and Timotheos were said to have been present. Christ passes the Virgin’s soul, represented as a miniature version of her adult body, wrapped in a winding cloth, to an angel who bears it up to heaven.
The Dark Ages; Loan Exhibition of Pagan and Christian Art in the Latin West and Byzantine East, exhibition catalogue, Worcester Art Museum, February 20-March 21, 1937, (Worcester, Mass., 1937), 31, no. 63, fig. 63.
C. R. Morey, "Art of the Dark Ages: A Unique Show. The First American Early Christian-Byzantine Exhibition at Worcester," Art News 35.21 (1937): 9-16, 24., esp. 15.
Arts of the Middle Ages; a Loan Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, February 17 to March 24, 1940, (Boston, 1940), 41, no. 120.
The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 78, no. 159.
The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 107, no. 237.
Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 82, no. 288.
K. Weitzmann, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, vol. 3, Ivories and Steatites (Washington, D.C., 1972), 70-72, no. 29, pl. XLIII.
C. L. Connor, The Color of Ivory: Polychromy on Byzantine Ivories, (Princeton, 1998), 85, no. 52.
Worcester, Worcester Art Museum, "Art of the Dark Ages," Feb. 19 - Mar. 29, 1937.
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, "Arts of the Middle Ages," Feb. 17 - Mar. 24, 1940.
Collection of the Ducal House of Mecklenburg.
Purchased from Arnold Seligmann, Rey and Co., New York by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, January 22, 1937.
Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., until November 29, 1940.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C.