The Dormition of Mary in Syro-Oriental Iconography

Today the Heaven of Heavens Proclaims Her Sister

Syro-Oriental tradition, to which the Assyrian Church and the Chaldean Church belong, has outstanding hymnographic texts for celebrations of the Most Holy Virgin Mary. Many of these texts are included in our liturgical books for various celebrations, and particularly notable are the hymns of George Warda, a writer who lived during the 12th and 13th centuries in Arbela, now Iraq.

The name Warda, which means ‘rose’ in Syrian, is a nickname tied to his poetic compositions in Syro-Oriental liturgical books. His writings included theological poems and metrical homilies for the feasts of the Lord, the Virgin Mary and saints. In two of his hymns dedicated to Mary, we find deeply embedded the them of her passage to heaven. There are texts in which the writer meditates on the mystery of Mary, virgin and mother of Christ, redeemer of man. These lines, inspired by texts of one of the theological and liturgical traditions of the Christian Near East, seek also to be a form of prayer and closeness to many Christians of the Syro-Oriental tradition and of the other Christian traditions which today are suffering and persecuted.

Warda begins both of his hymns attaching to Mary a long series of Christological and Mariological titles taken from Old Testament texts and facts: “Were I to call her (Mary) earth, it would be senseless, for I know that no one on earth bears her likeness. I could compare her to a garden, her four corners separated by four rivers. But the spring which flowed from paradise saved no one. From Mary, however, gushed a wellspring, which four mouths dispelled, inebriating all the earth”. Warda continues his exegetical comparison with the use of figures and characters taken from the Book of Genesis, for example, the tree, the ark, the rock, the bush: “She is the splendid tree which produced the marvellous fruit. She is the ark of flesh in which the true Noah rested. She is the daughter of Abraham for whose figure Adam provided. She bore the son and Lord of Abraham. She is the rock from whence the well has sprung. She is the extraordinary burning bush, in which dwelled for nine months the incandescent flame”.

In the central portion of both hymns, the poet sings the mystery of the death of Mary. Following apocryphal tradition, George Warda describes, one might say, all the liturgy celebrated in full communion between heaven and earth. He describes in the first place – practically seeing and contemplating the iconographic representation of the feast – the presence of all personages that come from heaven to celebrate Mary in her passage: “On the day her body separated from her glorious soul, angels solemnly hastened from heaven to pay homage to her, the womb from which life poured out for all mankind. The angels came from on high, the prophets rose again, the four winds brought the apostles to celebrate her glory”. Almost drawing a parallel between the death and resurrection of Christ and that of his mother, Warda sings the passover of Mary by making present even the figure of Adam and his descendants: “There came Adam, who was killed by his wife, to see his daughter exalted. There came Israel and his forefathers, Isaiah and his companions. Prophets along with patriarchs, apostles with the shepherds. In life she lived a worldly death and, in dying, called the dead back to life. The prophets came out of their sepulchres, the patriarchs from their tombs”. Then, following an iconographic description, he continues: “She was carried on the clouds and exalted among the spirits, to receive immortal praise for all eternity”. The writer continues to describe in every detail the liturgy which is at once both heavenly and earthly, around Mary’s passing; a liturgy celebrated by angels and by men, by the prophets and apostles, by the whole of Creation, in praise of Mary and of Christ himself. There are verses in which George Warda

adopts such beautiful and touching images as that of the rain which envies Mary’s womb: “The firmament and clouds bend their knees, and lightening joins with thunder to radiate her splendour and disperse the glory of her Son. Rain and dew covet her womb for, while theirs nourish only the seeds of the earth, hers had the honour of nourishing the seeds’ Creator. The stars adore her, the sun and moon kneel before her. Heaven proclaims her holy, the heaven of heavens proclaims her sister”.

Thus, to digress from the description made in the apocryphal tradition of the feast, the poet positions even the terrestrial next to the celestial liturgy, with the presence of the Twelve next to the funeral bed of Mary: “Several of the apostles were already dead, the others were still living but far away. The dead came back to life, and those far away gathered, at her death”. The celestial and terrestrial liturgy celebrated by angels and the apostles who become, with Mary, intercessors for all mankind: “The apostles, in procession, bore her body, the prophets and priests escorted her casket. Angels wove crowns and igneous mouths paid her homage. In the moment of her passing, her intercession came to the aid of the afflicted. The sick and the suffering souls were soothed upon the invocation of her great name”.

George Warda concludes the second of his hymns with a long series of beatitudes to Mary, which are a song of the Word of God incarnate in her: “Blessed are you, o Virgin betrothed, o woman who engendered a son. Blessed are you, o fatherless mother, whose Son had no father among mortal men. Blessed are you, o earth, in whom was formed and in whom abided, becoming flesh, the God of Abraham. Blessed are you, o city of the Most High and tabernacle of the Son of the Creator. Blessed are you, o earthly heaven whom the waters above heaven envied. Blessed are you, through whom eternal salvation was restored for Adam and his offspring”. And as we often find among Christian hymnal texts, Warda too requests at the end of his hymns for Mary’s intercession and prayer: “Ask for me, the worst sinner of all men, and for all people who celebrate your feast, the pardon and forgiveness of sins, you, whose Son reigns in eternal glory. Amen”.