August 15, 2017

An Interpretation of the Icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos

The holy icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos is a densely populated one. However, two characters stand out in this portrayal: Christ and His Holy Mother. We can see Jesus, with His regal stature, holding in His hands the Theotokos' soul depicted as a swaddled infant, and the gaunt figure of the deceased Holy Mother.

The funeral bed with its opulent covers - on which rests the Holy Mother with her arms crossed - dominates the scene. In the foreground, we see a thick candle burning in a simple candleholder. Behind the funeral bed, exactly in the center stands Christ with His body peculiarly turned towards the right, towards His mother's head. His hands are also outstretched in the same direction, and they are holding her soul, which is depicted as an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and its arms crossed.

Jesus is surrounded by glory. Inside this glory, at the top, we can see the image of a six-winged spirit, as well as four uncolored angels who, with gestures and expressions of sorrow on their faces, form a frame around Him. Right above Christ at the top of the arch, the gates of heaven stand open; two angels - uncolored again - can be seen bending over, with their arms covered, awaiting their turn to receive the soul of the Theotokos.

Gathered around the head and the foot of the funeral bed are the twelve apostles, with expressions, postures and gestures that indicate profound sorrow. Peter is swinging an incense-burner at the head of the Theotokos, while Paul is bent over her feet. Further back, on the right are three hierarchs holding open books, and to the left, in the background, three women are mourning. This composition is closed, by the two conventional, majestic buildings that tower up behind the apostles. Between the tops of the buildings, we can see the inscription THE DORMITION OF THE THEOTOKOS. The four hierarchs, though only three are often depicted, that were present at the Dormition were: James, the brother of Christ, Hierotheos the first Bishop of Athens, Dionysius the Areopagite and Timothy.

In every face, we notice sorrow combined with sweet hope. This is what Orthodox call joyful sorrow, a characteristic of the faithful who live with the expectation of resurrection. This can also be found in the hymns of the feastday, which, in certain places stress the awe and the fear of the apostles, portraying them in tears, while in other places, the hymns stress the joy that they feel, through psalm and hymn singing. Two such verses are: "While preparations were under way for your departure, the apostles encircled your deathbed, gazing at you in fear," and, "Having interred your life-imbued and God-bearing body, they [the apostles] rejoiced, o much-praised one."

Some icons portray the apostles being carried aloft on clouds, to be transported to Jerusalem. In many icons of the Dormition, the scene with the angel cutting off with his sword the hands of Jephonias is depicted. This was the Jew who had attempted to throw the dead body of the Theotokos onto the ground, and was in turn punished by an angel.