The Gospel doesn’t describe the earthly life of the Mother of God after the Ascension of Christ. The accounts of her last days are contained in non-biblical narratives. This is why the depictions of the Dormition of the Mother of God in Byzantine, as well as in the Balkans and Medieval Russia, were based on popular apocryphal stories such as The Account of St. John the Theologian of the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God, the Account of John, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, the most ancient Festival Account of the Dormition by Patriach of Jerusalem Modest († 632), the accounts by Sts. Andrew of Crete, Patriarch of Constantinople Herman and three Accounts by St. John of Damascus (all of them dating back to the 8th c.). The first credible evidence of the presence of the Dormition feast in the liturgical calendar dates back to the late 6th century. It is assumed that the feast was first introduced under the Byzantine Emperor Mauricius (592 – 602); before that it had been considered to be a local rather than a universal festival. The existing narratives of the Dormition of the Mother of God vary in length and details.
The general composition of the Dormition is traditional for Byzantine and Medieval Russian art. The Mother of God is depicted in the center, lying on the couch and flanked by the sweeping apostles; behind the couch stands the Savior with the soul of the Holy Virgin Mary depicted as a swaddled baby. The scenes of the Dormition often portrayed three of four bishops standing alongside the apostles – St. Dionysius the Areopagite, St. Hiertheus, St. Timothy of Ephesus and James, brother of God, who, according to legend, were present at the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God. According to tradition, the Dormition was shown as an event taking place in the house of John the Theologian in Jerusalem – in the Zion Chamber where the Holy Spirit had earlier descended on the Apostles. The scene is usually surrounded by architectural constructions. The image of the Mother of God lying on the couch is often represented with one or two burning candles symbolizing a prayer to God. The iconography is complemented by the scene of the Ascension of the enthroned Mother of God to the open gates of paradise behind which can be seen angel rows, Heavenly City (as a cross-shaped tower) and a few paradise trees.
The mature iconography of the Dormition developed in the post-iconoclastic era. One such example are two tenth-century ivory plates for the book casing of the Gospel made for the Emperor Otton III (the Library of Bavaria in Munich) and a plaque kept in the Metropolitan Museum (New York). In the iconography this composition has been encountered since the 11th century (the icon from the St. Catherine Convent on Sinai), being part of festival epistyles since the 11th century (the Deesis, the twelve apostles and twelve festivals from the same convent).
Since about the 11th century an extended version of the Dormition iconography, the so-called “cloudy type”, has obtained a wide circulation. The upper part of the composition (e.g. on a fresco-painting in the St. Sophia Church in Ohrid, Macedonia) represents the apostles flying on the clouds down to the Holy Virgin’s deathbed. According to the Account of John the Theologian, the apostles who the Holy Virgin wanted to see before her death, were caught up by the angels from various continents and whisked to Jerusalem, with the Apostles Andrew, Philipp, Luke, Simon and Thaddaeus having been risen from the graves. The earliest example of the “cloudy Dormition” in Rus’ is a thirteenth-century icon from Novgorod’s Diesyatinny Convent (presently kept in State Tretyakov Gallery). The upper part of the icon represents a blue half-round segment of heaven with golden stars and the angels carrying the soul of the Holy Virgin. The icon is distinguished by a rare and touching detail – red slippers on the step to the Holy Virgin’s deathbed, a symbol of the earthly way She has gone.
The 15th century in Rus’ saw a wide circulation of the Dormition icon depicting in the forefront, before the deathbed, the miraculous scene of an angel cutting off by the sword the hands of the impious Jew Auphonius (Aphonius or Iephonius), who attempted to overturn the Virgin Mary’s deathbed. This scene is first encountered on a fresco-painting in the Church of Panagia Mavriotissa in Kastoria (the late 12th – early 13th centuries); in Russian medieval art it survived on the murals of the Snetogorsky Monastery and in the Church of the Dormition at Volotovo Pole.
Russian icons of the Dormition of the second half of the 15th century from the Church of the Dormition in Moscow’s Kremlin (ca. 1479), from the St. Cyrill of Belozersk Monastery (1479, presently kept in State Tretyakov Gallery), from the Dormition Church in Dmitrov (the late 15th century, now kept in the Andrei Rublyov Museum) represent a detailed iconographic program. The Apostles are shown travelling on the clouds; the Holy Virgin’s deathbed is surrounded by the sweeping women of Jerusalem, apostles and angels; a forefront scene depicts Auphonius having his hands cut off by an angel. The upper part of the icon shows the opening heaven to which the angels ascend the Mother of God in a nimbus.
Zhanna G. Belik,
Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.
Olga E. Savchenko,
research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.