Iconography is a sacred art that undertakes to record in icons the theology of the Church about every event and every saint. When the Fathers who were in favour of icons were confronting the iconoclasts, they developed a complete theology about the value of the sacred icons. In particular, the Seventh Ecumenical Council not only ruled in favour of the veneration of the sacred icons to show them honour, but also developed the distinctive theology concerning them.
The historical events that took place at the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God, together with the holy Fathers’ interpretation of them, were analysed in an earlier section. Iconographers were called upon to depict what happened. The icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos, apart from conveying the historical aspect of the event, also imparts many theological messages.
a) Depicting Events
Iconography presents the Dormition of the Theotokos as it was described in the apocryphal gospel of St John the Theologian Concerning the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God, and as it was taught by the Fathers of the Church in their homilies. As always, iconography expresses the teaching of the Church.
The Theotokos is usually shown lying dead on a couch surrounded by the Apostles, who had been gathered together from the ends of the earth. The Apostle Peter is depicted near her head and the Apostle Paul near her feet.
Apart from the Apostles, the holy Hierarchs Dionysius, Hierotheos and Timothy are present. Christ is portrayed in the middle of the composition and above the couch, looking towards His departed Mother and holding her soul as an infant in swaddling bands, whom He will hand over to the angel standing beside Him. Women mourning the Theotokos also appear from the buildings depicted on the icon.
In earlier times heaven was drawn in the upper part of the composition as a semicircle, from which a gate opened to admit the Theotokos. In later icons the Mother of God is portrayed in glory in heaven.
It is possible for the Theotokos to be represented three times on one icon: as a dead body, as a soul, and as entering heaven.
From the twelfth century onwards icons of the Dormition of the Theotokos also show the incident involving Jephoniah the Jew, who rushed forward to overturn the Mother of God’s coffin, and an angel of the Lord cut off his arms at the shoulders.
In wall paintings from the Palaeologan period we find all the events of the Dormition depicted in a series of scenes. We see the prayer of the Theotokos to her Son before her Dormition, the arrival of the Apostles borne by clouds, the funeral procession with her sacred body, the burial, the Apostle Thomas gazing at her empty tomb, and, finally, the Theotokos being taken up to heaven and throwing her holy Sash to the Apostle Thomas, who was too late to attend her funeral.
The depiction of the Dormition of the Theotokos usually covers the part of the church wall above the west entrance. There are excellent wall paintings in various churches dating from the eleventh century, including those of the Holy Unmercenary Physicians, the Mavriotissa, the Koumbelidiki, and the Archangel in the Metropolis of Kastoria, St Nicholas the Orphan in Thessaloniki, the Church of Christ in Veroia, the Protaton on the Holy Mountain, and in Meteora.
Portable icons can be found in almost every museum in the world. There are also outstanding mosaics, including those in Daphne, the Martorana in Palermo, the Chora Monastery in Istanbul and the Holy Apostles in Thessaloniki, which present the event of the Dormition of the Theotokos with restraint, clarity and remarkable artistry (Konstantinos Kalokyris).
Essentially, the icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos shows what the Church is.
b) The Mystery of the Church
On the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos we venerate the sacred icon of the feast. The icon as a whole not only represents what happened at the funeral of the All-Holy Virgin, but also shows what the Church is. It is an icon that reveals the mystery of the Church in the most vivid fashion.
The Church is not a human organisation, but the theanthropic Body of Christ. It is the union of God and human beings in the Person of Christ. In the sacred icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos we see that the Church centres on Christ and the All-Holy Virgin, as Christ’s Mother, and around them are the Apostles, Bishops and angels.
The sacred icon shows clearly that death has been abolished in the Church, and that what we call death is simply sleep. The body receives God’s grace and becomes bright, but the soul, too, lives after death, and if the person has become holy, his soul is “in God’s hand”. We want what happened to the All-Holy Virgin to happen, by analogy, to us as well. We hope that, when the time comes for us to depart from this world, we will be in the Church, that we will pray, that we will have our spiritual fathers nearby and will receive their blessing, and, above all, that we will partake of the Body and Blood of Christ.
Just as Jephoniah tried to dishonour the All-Holy Virgin’s body and failed, so there are various enemies who try to harm Christ’s Body, the Church, but they have not managed, and will never manage, to do anything, because the Church is not a human association but the theanthropic Body of Christ. The Church is very powerful. It is not afraid of anything at all, but saves everyone, even its so-called enemies, when they repent.
The All-Holy Virgin brought great joy to the whole world because she gave birth to Christ, Who is our joy and the hope of our salvation. We therefore love her and beseech her to protect us and to strengthen us in difficult moments of our life. We ask her to intercede for us that we may remain in the Orthodox Church, and to mediate for us, that we may be found worthy to conquer death by the power of Christ and enter the heavenly Church.
c) Analysis of the Icon of Theophanes the Cretan
The sacred iconography of the Dormition of the Theotokos conveys all the theology of the feast. Anyone looking at Theophanes the Cretan’s icon, which is in the Monastery of Stavronikita on the Holy Mountain, elicits many theological messages, which have been pointed out by various interpreters.
We shall mainly emphasise what exactly the Church is, because when we look at this icon we see the Church, which has Christ as its head, from Whom all its members are blessed. The Church is Christ the Bridegroom, the mother of the Bridegroom and the friends of the Bridegroom. This composition is, at the same time, also the Kingdom of God. Three points will be highlighted that reveal this spiritual significance.
The first point is that the Church is a “meeting of heaven and earth”, of human beings and angels, the departed and the living, all of whom experience the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.
The whole composition of the figures represented on the icon forms a notional Cross. The horizontal dimension of the Cross is formed by the couch on which the dead body of the Theotokos lies. The vertical dimension of the Cross is formed in the upper part of the icon by Christ, Who is standing upright, and in the lower part by Jephoniah the Jew, who wanted to dishonour the body of the Theotokos. It is a notional Cross made up of Christ, the Theotokos and those present at her Dormition, most of whom extol her in hymns, but one of whom tries to disgrace her.
The Cross is glory and disgrace, salvation and condemnation. The Apostle Paul proclaims: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
The Church also has its trials caused by people who neither experience nor are capable of understanding the mystery of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection. They are ignorant of godly life and uninitiated in it, and they react against those who live in another dimension of life.
The teaching of the Fathers refers to the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, which is the love of God that pours forth from the Triune God before and during the creation of the world, before and after man’s fall, before and during Christ’s incarnation, and before and after Pentecost. This love of God is shared in different ways, as burning and enlightening, by the twofold energy of the Cross.
This mystery of the Cross is clearly visible in the faces of the people depicted in the icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos. Pain and longing, love and prayer, ecstasy and vision, hymns and silence all constitute participation in the mystery of Christ’s Cross.
The Cross is Christ’s glory, together with His love and self-emptying, but it is also the glory of the Theotokos, who lived her whole life in the most profound humility, in the self-emptying that deifies and exalts, in the mystery of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection. The Apostles and Hierarchs lived in the same way, proving themselves to be friends of God and friends of the Cross.
Finally, still on the subject of the notional Cross formed by the icon, we can also emphasise the dignity of human beings, when, through the whole of their life and the manner of their death, following the Mother of God’s example, they become the horizontal dimension of the Cross, and its vertical dimension, God’s grace, is added.
The second point is that the icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos shows the nature of the Divine Liturgy, which is the central point of ecclesiastical life.
The entire composition of the icon, with its two dimensions, horizontal and vertical, represents the Holy Table on which the Divine Liturgy takes place. The life-giving body of the Theotokos is the Holy Table, and Christ is upon it, where the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. The Apostles surround the Holy Table, participating in the mystery of the Divine Liturgy in various ways. Everyone who mortifies the passions essentially transforms them and becomes a mystical Holy Table on which Christ celebrates the sacred rite of our salvation.
The third point that the icon of the Dormition reveals is the inner life of the Church, its origin and its direction. The starting-point of the Church is not the people but Christ, and the final destination of the Church is not a “continuing city” but the “city to come” (Heb. 13:14), which is also present. The Church lives the last things; it is in a continuous state of tension between the things of the present and the last things. For that reason the Church is at the same time both militant and triumphant, visible and invisible. There are not two Churches, one militant and one triumphant; the Church is both at once. The earthly aspect of the Church is continually ‘bombarded’ by eternal life and proceeds towards its fullness. We live the mystical pledge of eternal life starting from this life. In the Church everything is transformed.
When we look at icons of the Dormition of the Theotokos, particularly the one by Theophanes the Cretan in the Monastery of Stavronikita on the Holy Mountain, we see that the soul of the Theotokos, which has just departed from her body, is depicted as a baby wrapped in swaddling bands with a halo. The soul does not exist before the body, but it is created with the body. Nor is the soul abolished after its departure from the body, but it lives until the Second Coming of Christ, when it will re-enter the body and be resurrected.
This particular icon is in marked contrast with the icon of the Virgin and Child. In the icon of the Virgin and Child, the Most Holy Mother of God holds Christ as a baby, whereas in the icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos Christ Himself holds the soul of His Mother as though it were a baby. Thus, when she dies the Theotokos becomes in some way “the daughter of her Son”, Who, as the Son of God, leads her to heaven.
Seeing this enables us to grasp that when someone lives in Christ all his relationships are changed and transfigured. Christ gives meaning to human life, regenerating and transforming people and making a new creation. The Apostle Paul writes: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Experiencing the mystery of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection means overcoming pleasure and pain, transcending biological life and death.
We remain on earth, sometimes glorifying God, sometimes contending with Him, and at other times fighting against Him. We are suffering, wounded and tormented, but Christ waits for us, because He brings us peace. We must make our way towards Christ and towards heaven, overcoming pain, loneliness and death.
extract from the book THE FEASTS OF THE MOTHER OF GOD