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The Iconographic Depictions of the Assumption of the Theotokos

Iconography of the Dormition of the Mother of God

Iconography of the Dormition of the Mother of God

The Theotokos reclines on Her bed in peace. Quiet joy illuminates Her face as She prepares to meet Her Son. The apostles have gathered around Her. Suddenly, a divine light fills the upper room. Surrounded by angels, Christ descends to His Mother and takes Her soul in His arms like a mother picks up her baby. Her body still lies on Her deathbed, as if She has just fallen asleep.

This narrative lies at the heart of the iconographic depictions of the Assumption of the Mother of God, a central event to Christianity.

Early icons were typically scarce on detail and characters, chiefly because they were flat relief images on slates of stone or ivory. However, later on artists have used a much wider range of artistic means and details in church murals and portable icons. The final narrative took shape towards the 13th century and has not changed much ever since.

Many elements in the icon of the Dormition have a deep liturgical meaning. For example, Virgin Mary's deathbed resembles the altar table at the church. Two groups of the Apostles on either side - led by Peter and Paul - remind us of their invisible presence at every Eucharist and evoke two kinds of consecrated bread and wine with which the faithful are communed, as they partake of the true Body and Blood of the Savior.

Christ behind the deathbed symbolises the celebrant bishop. The depiction of the four bishops - present at the Assumption of the Theotokos according to tradition - represents the communion of the priests during liturgy given by the bishop.

The Apostle John the Theologian who bows in reverence to the Mother of God on Her deathbed represents a priest revering to the holy altar table. The angels flying down to Christ have the palms of their hands hidden in the sleeves of their robes, as in the Communion, symbolising the deacons. The censer in the Apostle Peter's hand represents the incensing of the Holy Gifts during Liturgy.

Some icons of the Dormition depict an angel in the foreground severing the hands of the impious Jew Aphthonios (or Jephonios, in some sources), who wanted to topple the funeral bier on which lay the body of the Most Holy Theotokos.

This image was first used in the fresco of the Church of Panagia Mavriotissa in Kastoria in XII-XIII century Greece and in the 14-th century frescoes of Snetogorsky Monastery and murals in the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Volotovo Field, outside Novgorod (Russia). This version gained popularity in Russia from the 15th century.

We present a selection of Eastern Orthodox canonical depictions of the Dormition of the Mother of God in icons.

Dormition of the Theotokos. A 10th century ivory plaque. Metropolitan Museum, New York

Dormition of the Theotokos. A 10th century ivory plaque. Metropolitan Museum, New York

Dormition of the Theotokos. From the 11th century Gospel miniature collection of Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas

Dormition of the Theotokos. From the 11th century Gospel miniature collection of Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas

Dormition of the Mother of God. Novgorod, early 13th century. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Dormition of the Mother of God. Novgorod, early 13th century. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Dormition of the Theotokos. Pskov icon painting school, 13th century. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Dormition of the Theotokos. Pskov icon painting school, 13th century. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Assumption of the Mother of God. Panel style. Byzantine, 15th century

Assumption of the Mother of God. Panel style. Byzantine, 15th century

Dormition of the Theotokos, 15th century, Byzantine

Dormition of the Theotokos, 15th century, Byzantine

Assumption of the Most Holy Theotokos, feast tier of the iconostasis in Saint Trinity Cathedral, 1425 – 27. Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius

Assumption of the Most Holy Theotokos, feast tier of the iconostasis in Saint Trinity Cathedral, 1425 – 27. Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius

Dormition of the Theotokos. A 16th century icon from Macedonia, in the Balkans. Metropolitan museum of fine arts, Paris

Dormition of the Theotokos. A 16th century icon from Macedonia, in the Balkans. Metropolitan museum of fine arts, Paris

Dormition of the Mother of God by Nazary Istomin, 17th century. Kolomenskoe open air museum, Moscow

Dormition of the Mother of God by Nazary Istomin, 17th century. Kolomenskoe open air museum, Moscow

Dormition of the Theotokos. Cappadocia, Greece, 18th century

Dormition of the Theotokos. Cappadocia, Greece, 18th century

Dormition of the Theotokos. Mosaic of the Chora Monastery in Constantinople (now Istanbul)

Dormition of the Theotokos. Mosaic of the Chora Monastery in Constantinople (now Istanbul)

Dormition of the Theotokos. Two-sided tabletka icon. Saint Sophia Cathedral, Novgorod

Dormition of the Theotokos. Two-sided tabletka icon. Saint Sophia Cathedral, Novgorod

August 28, 2023
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