The Dormition Abbey
This is Where Mary Lived and Died
Location – Mount Zion
Map Coordinates - 31.772097, 35.228986
Our Octagon Tour groups often get the chance to see the place of Mary’s home - the spot where she died.
To understand the meaning of the term “Dormition”, think of the word “dormant”. In Orthodoxy and Catholicism, as in the language of Scripture, death is often referred to as "sleep". For something to be dormant suggests that it is in a sleep state that mimics death. Both the Orthodox and Catholic churches believe that Mary was taken up into heaven, both soul and body. Thus, her brief three-day period of death was where she was actually in a state of dormancy.
While some people believe that Mary lived for a time in Ephesus with the Apostle John, literally all of the earliest traditions locate the end of Mary’s life right here in Jerusalem. She had many family members and friends in this city, and because she was the matriarch of the Church she had a huge support structure here.
When Mary died there were no cemeteries on Mount Zion, so her body was carried to the Mount of Olives where there were many tombs.
Like many churches in the Holy Land, this one was built on the site of two other churches. Up until the time that Christianity was legalized, early believers probably met in a home or a synagogue on Mount Zion. The first official church on this site was a Byzantine church, and it was called the Church of Holy Zion. However, in 614 AD it was destroyed by the Persian Sassanian army.
The floor mosaic of the upper church, which was built in 1932, can be read as a kind of confession of faith and story of creation.
In the center are three concentric circles symbolizing the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with the Greek word “Holy” written in each circle. The light of the triune God is carried out into the world by the greater and the lesser prophets and the Apostles and evangelists. Additional bands are formed around the center until finally the ends of the earth are reached - graphically and in letters presented as the names of the twelve months and the twelve signs of the zodiac. The entire circular presentation is surrounded by a quotation from the Book of Proverbs:
“From of old I was poured forth, at the first, before the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no fountains or springs of water; before the mountains were settled into place, before the hills, I was brought forth.” (Proverbs 8:23-25)
The Altar Mosaic.
High above the main altar is a mosaic of Mary and the infant Jesus. He is holding a book that is opened to the verse “I am the Light of the World”. The initials on both sides of Mary and Jesus are an abbreviation for “Mary, Mother of God.” Twelve Old Testament prophets underneath them announce the birth of the Messiah. Their message culminates in the promise of the prophet Isaiah:
“Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (God with us).” (Isaiah 7:14).
Here is a list of the six mosaics that surround the nave of the church:
Saint Benedict Mosaic. This is a mosaic dedicated to Saint Benedict, the 6th-century founder of the German Benedictine order of Catholicism, the community that has custody over this, the Domitian Abbey.
Birth of Jesus Mosaic. Here is a mosaic of Mary holding the infant Jesus, while He is being adored by both the shepherds and the Magi.
Family Tree of Jesus Mosaic. This is a mosaic of the family tree of Jesus, Who is pictured here as the sacrificial Lamb of God.
Mary, Jesus and Bavarian Bishops Mosaic. Here is a mosaic showing Mary, who is holding the child Jesus, while being surrounded by Bavarian Bishops.
John the Baptist Mosaic. Here is a mosaic of John the Baptist at the Jordan River.
Saint Boniface Mosaic. This is a mosaic showing Saint Boniface at the center with Saint Lioba and Saint Mauritius.
The Statue of Mary in Repose.
There are two staircases that descend into the crypt of the church. This floor of the crypt is approximately on the same level as was Mary’s home in the first century. This is the Chapel of the Dormition - the place where Mary died. It is a circular pillared hall with a walkway, called an ambulatory, that circles around a circular shrine. In it you can see a life-sized figure of Mary in repose as she was shortly after she fell asleep.
Mary is always referred to as having fallen into a deep sleep. Hence the German word Dormition, since Mary was only dormant. The statue is made of cherry wood and ivory.
As you look up you can see a dome with a mosaic above her that depicts Christ with wide open arms, ready to receive her body and soul into heaven. He is surrounded by six women of faith from the Old Testament: Eve, Miriam, Ruth, Esther, Jael and Judith.
How old was Mary when she died?
There are varying theories about how old Mary was when she died. According to the Protoevangelium of James, dated around 150 AD, she was 16-years-old when Jesus was born. According to Hyppolitus of Thebes, who was a Byzantine historian of the Holy Family, Mary lived for another 11 years after the resurrection of Jesus, which puts her death sometime around the year 41 AD. If this is true, it means that Mary was about sixty-years-old when she died.
The Crypt Altar (downstairs).
This altar commemorates the birth of the Christian church on the day of Pentecost, with Mary in the Upper Room, being surrounded by the twelve Apostles, while the Holy Spirit, pictured as a dove, descends on all of them. Projecting from the Dove are 12 tongues of fire, which are spoken of in Acts 2:3.
Pieta Statue (downstairs).
Behind a lattice grill is a small pieta statue, showing Mary holding the body of Jesus immediately after He was taken down from the cross.
John the Baptist altar (downstairs).
There is an altar dedicated to John the Baptist, with a wooden relief, depicting the Lamb of God in the center, which is reminiscent of John’s declaration upon seeing Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God.” (John 1:29)
Mary teaching the Apostles after the ascension of Jesus.
Mary’s Influence in the Early Church.
Let’s think about what happened during the eleven years that Mary lived after the resurrection of Jesus. She was the matriarch of the Church. She was known as the mother of God. She was probably responsible for helping early believers locate the places where both she and Jesus were born. Many of the stories in our Gospels were passed down to us through Mary. The historic account of the virgin birth of Jesus must have originated from her testimony.
There’s the story of her visit to her cousin, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:39-56). That too comes probably from Mary. The journey of the Holy Family to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15), finding the boy Jesus teaching the Jewish elders on the Temple Mount (Luke 2:41-52), and many other narratives were probably heavily influenced by her; the marriage feast in Cana (John 2:1-11), the words of Jesus as He hung on the cross. Acts 1:14 also tells us that she was with all of the Apostles, praying with them in the earliest days of the church. That suggests that she was present when the Holy Spirit descended on the day of Pentecost.
Simply put, almost everything in the first four books of the New Testament, up until Jesus became a man (and probably much after that), came to us, or were affirmed, by her. The stories that provide the foundation of the Christian faith come to us through Mary’s eyewitness testimony. This is her Gospel.