The Dormition of the Theotokos and Dionysios the Areopagite

Much of the hymnography and the tradition surrounding the Dormition of the Theotokos have been based on a passage from the Divine Names of Dionysios the Areopagite, which includes the phrase ζωαρχικόν καὶ θεοδόχον σῶμα. This phrase was read by John of Scythopolis as a reference to the Dormition, and subsequent scholarship never questioned this until recently. In recent years, however, this reference has been questioned repeatedly. This article examines the significance of this issue and this confusion for Eucharistic and for Marian theology.


Strange as it may sound, we derive much knowledge by accident and error. We can sometimes receive an insight on a certain process by noticing what it is being confused with, as it develops. Inscriptions or documents with misspelled words for instance, allow us to understand how pronunciation is changing, and how when we start finding the name of Matthew the Evangelist spelled as Ματθέος instead of Ματθαῖος (such as in the sixth-century mosaic of St Catherine’s on Sinai), we realize that there is no phonetic difference between ε and αι anymore. Naturally, we can find many such examples in the manuscript tradition, some of which may not be very important or meaningful, whereas others sometimes lead us to serious mistakes. In a strangely similar way, what I am going to talk about here is largely what can be thought of as a theological misspelling, which may likewise allow us to make some observations about the development of early Christian spirituality and the developing cult of Mary.

Before we proceed with the study of the historical or theological misspelling though, let us take a wider look in order to establish the field. Our field of observation starts with the feast of the Dormition. Much work has been done on the textual and theological origins of the feast itself (mostly the impressive work of Stephen Shoemaker on the subject 1), and we have a fair idea of the way the significance of the feast developed from a more general Marian celebration to a feast that focusses on the historical—even if apocryphally attested—death of Mary, even if the theological implications of that particular death transcend history. The Dormition in the iconographic tradition is often portrayed on the western wall of a church, as the last image that the faithful see on their way out, a reminder of their own mortality and the hope of their salvation by Christ. In this way, Mary is presented as a model for all humanity, even in her death.


1. Stephen J. Shoemaker, Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary's Dormition and Assumption (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

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