It is clear from the Holy Scriptures and Christian tradition that Mary, the Theotokos, was highly favoured by God (St Luke 1:28) and held in high regard by the Church. Along with the Apostles, she gave leadership and guidance to the Church in Jerusalem, especially among the women believers.
Acts 1:14 confirms that St Mary was with the Holy Apostles on the day of Pentecost, and the tradition of the Church holds that she remained in the home of the Apostle John in Jerusalem, continuing the ministry of Her divine Son Jesus Christ in word and deed.
All of this is depicted in one or more ways in the icon. As we seek to comprehend the Dormition icons, we must understand that instead of just depicting one moment in time, an icon displays a sequence of events and contains many details that are more symbolic rather than historic.
Though not mentioned in the Scriptures, the circumstances of St Mary’s Dormition are well known in Christian tradition from the first century.
The central icon of the feast vividly depicts this reality: the icon revolves around none other than Christ Himself, who has come down from His heavenly throne to receive His mother in His arms.
We see St Mary lying on her death bed, surrounded by angels and saints, Above her body stands her Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. In His hands is a small child covered in white clothes which represents the soul of St Mary. She carried her Son into this life, and Her Son in turn carries her into eternal life. This is the privilege that awaits all Christians who carry Christ in their lives.
Several bishops in episcopal attire are shown here and are traditionally said to be St James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, St Timothy, Heirotheus, and Dionysius the Areopagite (who provided the first written account of the Dormition in the second century). At the feet of St Mary’s bed, we see St Paul who bows low in honour of her.
St Peter is shown censing the body of the Theotokos. to convey that he was the leader of the Apostles and the fledgling church. This depiction of St Paul and St Peter on the right and left show the Christian understanding of how these two apostles were the pillars of the Church.
John the Evangelist who took care of the Holy Virgin after the death and ascension of the Lord Jesus, is often shown as leaning on the body of the Theotokos.
The Dormition icons always show some apostles with angels in the clouds. This is depicted to remind us of how the Apostles were miraculously brought to Jerusalem by the Holy Spirit from the ends of the earth just before St Mary’s death.