|The Dormition of the
The "Dormition of the Virgin Mary" is her "falling asleep" at the end of her time on earth. It is not simply called the "Death of the Virgin" because of a tradition that soon after her soul left her body the two were reunited and taken up to Heaven in what is called the "Assumption."
A variety of accounts of the Dormition were written in Greek and other eastern languages during the fourth and fifth centuries, some of them with possible roots in the second. By the sixth century we find Latin texts dealing with this subject, and by the time of the 13th-century Golden Legend a large number of versions of the story were in circulation, often inconsistent with each other in matters of detail.
This variety explains the diversity of artistic treatments of the subject.
Extant Byzantine icons of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary go back to the ninth century. In one tenth-century example, we see the basic pattern for both East and West: Mary's body reclines on a bier attended by the apostles, while her soul is taken by Christ and angels; the soul is signified by a child-like figure that is either clothed or swaddled.
Western images, especially those influenced by Byzantine art, often emphasize the liturgical aspect of Mary's passing, with vestments, candles, hymn books, ointment jars, and/or censers (Bohemian and Byzantine examples). This emphasis is precedented in eastern homilies, which portrayed the Apostles' actions in terms of contemporary funeral customs.
In the image above left Christ is in a mandorla carrying his mother's soul on her shroud. This is a frequent pattern in images of the Dormition, but in some Christ hands the soul up to an angel, which is how the event is portrayed in Gregory of Tours' Glory of the Martyrs and John of Thessalonika's homily on the Dormition. (Both sources identify the angel as Michael.) A 13th-century example does not show Christ at all; the apostles are simply gathered around the recumbent Virgin.
There is also significant variation regarding the number and the disposition of figures around the deathbed. In Vivarini's painting above left, we see just eleven apostles. The missing twelfth apostle would be St. Thomas, who according to The Passing of Mary and one version recounted by the Golden Legend did not arrive until later. Images with all twelve apostles may be following The Account of St. John on the Falling Asleep of the Mother of God (cached) or simply agreeing with St. Jerome's dismissal of the story of the absent Thomas. Finally, many images show a larger number of people in attendance, following the tradition expressed in St. Andrew of Crete's second homily on the Dormition (example).
Also note that Vivarini puts St. Peter (bald pate) and St. John (no beard) across from each other at approximately the middle of the deathbed. In many paintings the positions of these two apostles are determined by compositional demands, but a large number put Peter at the head of the bed and John at the foot, following the Golden Legend's account of the apostles' farewell hymn (example).
Narrative images of the Dormition are sometimes part of compositions that integrate the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin (example) or the Coronation alone (example).
Feast day (of the Dormition in the East, of the Assumption in the West): August 15
At left, Vivarini's so-called Death of the Virgin
Ivory from Constantinople
Pacino da Bonaguida's painting, early 14th century
Dormition marble, 15th century
16th century painting
Saraceni's Death of the Virgin
Gregory of Tours, from Glory of the Martyrs
The Passing of Mary (cached)
The Account of St. John on the Falling Asleep of the Mother of God (cached)
The Golden Legend #119: html or pdf
Comparative summaries of the above
Also see Brian E. Daley, On the Dormition of Mary: Early Patristic Homilies.