Drawing Inspiration from Hymnography

+JMJ+ Dear friends! I recently finished an icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos, and wanted to share it with you. Rather than explain the symbolism of this icon using my own words, I will use the words of ancient hymns from the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches.
At the base of the icon, the Holy Mother of God, or "Theotokos," is pictured in her “kimisis,” Greek for “falling asleep.” The eye is led downward, following the curve of apostles’ posture as they lean deeply over her. One hears of the presence of the Apostles via music in the Doxastichion for the Matins of the Dormition:
At your deathless Falling Asleep, O Theotokos, Mother of Life, clouds caught the Apostles up into the air, and though they were dispersed throughout the world, they were brought into a single choir beside your most pure body. As they reverently buried you, they cried out, singing Gabriel’s words: “Rejoice, O full of grace, Virgin Mother without bridegroom, the Lord is with you.” With them implore Him, as your Son and our God, that our souls may be saved.
Amongst the apostles is St. Paul, on the right side, and across from him is St. Peter, incensing the Holy Theotokos. At Matins, this is sung in the Stichera:
When the Translation of your immaculate body was being prepared, the Apostles surrounded your deathbed and looked on you with trembling. They gazed at your body and were seized with awe, while Peter cried out to you with tears, “O Virgin, I see you, who are the life of all, lying here out-stretched, and I am struck with wonder; for the Delight of the life to come made His dwelling in you. But fervently implore your Son and God, O immaculate Lady, that your people may be kept safe from harm.
Above the apostles are two Bishops. Traditionally, one is St. James, the first Bishop of Jerusalem. The other is Dionysius, the first Bishop of Athens. Pictured together, these Bishops represent, respectively, the Jews and the Greeks, whom Christ encompassed in His work of salvation. At Vespers, this is sung in the Doxastichion:
At your departing, O Virgin Theotokos, to Him who was ineffably born of you, James, the first bishop and brother of the Lord was there, and so was Peter, the most honored pinnacle of the theologians, and the whole sacred choir of the Apostles. …And they rejoiced, O all-praised Virgin, as they buried your body, the source of Life, which had received God. On high the all holy and most venerable angelic Powers in amazement at the wonder, bowed and said to one another, “Lift up your gates, and receive her who bore the Creator of heaven and earth!” So we too celebrate your memory and cry out to you, all praised Lady: Raise up the horn of Christians, and save our souls!
The two figures clad in white are angels. In the Hymn to the Theotokos, it is sung thus:
The Angels, as they looked upon the Dormition of the Virgin, were struck with wonder, seeing how the Virgin went up from earth to heaven. The limits of nature are overcome in you, O Pure Virgin; for birthgiving remains virginal, and life is united to death, a virgin after child bearing and alive after death, you ever save your inheritance, O Theotokos.
There are two more figures, slightly hidden on the extreme edges next to the two Bishops. These are the holy women of the Church. Herein, we contemplate the Holy Theotokos surrounded by the entire body of the Church. These women are sung of in the third Stasis of the Lamentations of the Theotokos:
The women high in honour, along with the Apostles, are crying out and weeping.
Moving our eyes then to the center of the icon, we find two things happening simultaneously, below and above. Below, we see our Lady on what appears to be her deathbed, illuminated by the markings of a funeral: a lit candle. The Lamentations of the Theotokos (sung to same melodies as the Lamentations of Holy Friday, interestingly enough!) illustrate this "kimisis" of Mary with great beauty and poetry:
Down into the earth thou, the Lord’s unplanted land, doth today descend. Out of thee hath sprung forth the Grain of Life, and unto the Land of Heaven thou dost now arise. O Mother of the Light! Today the natural sun, which once beheld the setting of the Sun of Righteousness, beholds Thee, O Virgin, as the setting of the moon.
Above the Theotokos in her kimisis, we find Christ depicted in glory, holding what appears to be a child wrapped in linen. This child symbolizes the soul of the holy Theotokos. We discover that this icon isn't just about Mary on her deathbed. Rather, Christ is taking her into heaven, which is symbolized by the almond-shaped arch, heavily populated with seraphim and cherubim. In the iconographic Canon of Color, green, blue, and purple symbolize the heavenly realm (more specifically, purple symbolizes God the Father, indigo symbolizes Christ the Son, and Turquoise-Green symbolizes the Holy Spirit), and thus our Lady is being enveloped into glory of the Holy Trinity in heaven, held in the arms of her savior, Jesus Christ. It is important to study the posture of Christ holding her soul in His arms, because there is a role reversal. In the icon of the incarnation, Christ is enthroned in the arms of the Virgin Mary, whereas in the Dormition, Mary the “throne” of Christ is held in the arms of Christ Himself. The incredible paradox of this reversal is best illuminated in the second Stasis of the Lamentations of the Theotokos:
All the Angelic Hosts stood and marvelled when they beheld Christ God, the Unapproachable, approaching as a Son to give honour to His Mother. Angels shook with fear to behold their God again descending; with His Mother’s soul carried in His hands, He arose again in glory most divine.
This theme also appears in the Kontakion of the Dormition:
Neither the grave nor death could contain the Theotokos, the unshakable hope, ever vigilant in intercession and protection. As Mother of Life, He who dwelt in the ever-virginal womb transposed her to life.
At the highest point of the icon, the seraphim adorn the mandorla symbolizing the gate of heaven, as sung in the Lamentations of the Theotokos:
Standing face-to-face in the place where the Seraphim cover their faces, thou beholdest the Trinity that is God one in essence, which nothing can divide
Thank you for taking the time to read this! I pray that you find the same inspiration from the great tradition of hymnography. Materials used: homemade egg tempera and 24k gold leaf on poplar wood panel. Sketch based upon the Icon of the Dormition by Master Iconographer Vladislav Andrejev.

1 comment:

Anthony VanArsdale said...

This is beautiful! Thank you for taking the time to share this with us.