In the 11th episode of the “Orthodox Icons Explained” series, Fr. John explains the icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God. The Feast of the Dormition of Our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary is celebrated on August 15 each year. The Feast commemorates the repose of the Mother of Jesus Christ and the translation or assumption into heaven of the body of the Theotokos.
Fr. Ioan Bizau is a senior lecturer of Iconography and Christian Art at the Faculty of Orthodox Theology in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
Location: Diocesan Museum of the Orthodox Metropolis of Cluj (Muzeul Mitropoliei Clujului)
Camera: Darius Echim
Table of contents:
00:00 ♫ Sticheron for the Dormition of the Mother of God, Diaconesti Monastery, Romania ♫
01:05 The Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God: a second Easter
03:17 Pilgrimages in Transylvania
04:39 ♫ Traditional hymn for the Mother of God, Sighisoara Monastery, Romania ♫
05:21 Biblical references and the Holy Tradition
06:14 The two icons
09:36 ♫ Exapostilarion of the Feast of Dormition of the Mother of God, Archimandrite Arsenios Dahdal, St. Georges Al-Homeyra Patriarchal Monastery, Syria ♫
10:40 The background
11:06 The death bed
12:20 Saints Peter and Paul
14:30 ♫ Kontakion of the Dormition of the Mother of God, Choir of the Alexander-Svirsky Monastery, Russia ♫
15:12 The vertical plan
15:46 The newborn baby – a symbol
18:12 ♫ Troparion of the Dormition of the Mother of God, St. Sava Cathedral Choir, Serbia, 2016 ♫
18:50 The Archangel and the man
20:50 The meaning of the Feast for our lives
22:17 The place in the church where the Dormition is painted
23:28 ♫ Traditional hymn for the Mother of God, Nicula Monastery, Romania ♫
Fr. Ioan Bizau:
With the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, we are approaching the end of the Ecclesiastic year. We know very well that according to the Eastern liturgical tradition, the Church year begins on September 1st. In the Orthodox world this Feast, the Dormition of the Theotokos, is awaited with great joy and is celebrated like a second Easter. It is very important to remember and notice this. The order of the services, the way in which they take place, their rhythms, remind us of the services of Easter. Of course, the Feast has been attested since the beginning of the 3rd century, and the day of August 15 was set at the end of the 6th century, when the Feast of the Dormition was widespread. It is very important to remember that at the Dormition of the Mother of God we contemplate the first human being who had the experience of deification. I mean the soul of the Most Pure Lady, after separating from the body, has been received in the divine Glory of her Son. That is why in the icons of the Feast we see the Lord Jesus Christ carrying the soul of his Mother like a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, carrying her in His arms. This is the meaning of the iconographic element I was referring to. Of course, the fact that the Feast of the Dormition has been celebrated as a second Easter, in the Orthodox world, among nations and Orthodox communities, helped the Feast of the Dormition to receive the most vivid and strong traditional, cultural and social expressions. It is enough to think about what is happening in our country [Romania], in Transylvania, on this Feast day, the great pilgrimages to monasteries. Here in our vicinity we have the famous Nicula monastery, but also in other parts of the Eastern Christian world, the Feast of the Dormition is linked to this state of piety expressed by the Christian pilgrimages to the monasteries dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, to the icons, to the places where there are famous, miracle-working icons. For the event we celebrate on August 15, we have no references in the Holy Gospels. We have references in the Holy Tradition, that is, in the living memory of the Church. A memory which is of a liturgical nature: the troparion of the Feast, the other hymns, the icons, help us to understand what happened when the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of God, reached the moment when her soul left her most pure body, like it happens at the death of every descendant of Adam, at the death of every man, in general.
We have two icons that are part of the collection of our Museum. They are well made icons. Here is a monumental icon from the 16th century. The director of the Museum told me that the iconographer, the painter, either came from Moldova to Transylvania or made the icon there and someone, a devout believer, maybe a richer one, went there and bought the icon for the church in his village. Here we have an 18th century icon, also from Transylvania. Both of them are beautiful. The painters are anonymous, in the sense that we do not know their names, but that does not mean that they were not real people. We hear today the fact that if people don’t exist on the Internet, then they don’t exist in reality. Well, how can they not exist? The same goes for the two painters: we don’t know their names, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. I also have a reproduction, a very good quality icon, from the 15th century, an icon that is preserved in the patrimony of the Iviron Monastery from the Holy Mount Athos. I will refer to it during our meeting because it is older and from a theological point of view, how to say, it is better composed, better articulated and the teaching that the Feast of the Dormition gives us with its services, hymns, and the icon of the Christian East, is better visualized, more accurately, in this reproduction that I have in my hand. I was saying, it is a very good quality icon, preserved in the fabulous iconographic, artistic collection of the Iviron Monastery from the Holy Mount Athos. As I was saying, it is from the 15th century.
And now let’s try to read the image in front of us. Here, we turn to the great icon, the monumental icon of the 16th century, made by a gifted painter, a talented iconographer, from somewhere in Moldova and arrived here in the lands of Cluj and until a few decades ago it was the icon of a small parish community of an ordinary village, like any other village in Transylvania. So going back to the image, we will notice the background. There are two buildings. We can see them here as well. That is, two elements of architecture, a sign that the event takes place in an inhabited environment, in a city, a town, so that it is easy for us to understand, not inside, but outside. First of all we notice the death bed on which the Blessed Virgin is placed. Her hands are crossed on her chest, this is how it has been done since the world began when it comes to those who depart to the other world. It is about observing a minimal ritual that people have done with their deaths since the world began. The death bed is sumptuous, we see that purple mat. We always find this color, this chromatic element, in the vestments, in the icons, in the images in which the Most Pure Mother of God appears. Blood is the symbol of life, we know this well, but also the symbol of sacrifice. There are two groups on either side. We see them in the big icon but also in this reproduction of a 15th century icon. Towards her head we see the Holy Apostle Peter. He has a censer in his hand incensing the bier. That is, he performs an ordinary, ancient, ancestral liturgical gesture. The dead bodies were incensed, were perfumed, they were served, that is, a ceremony was performed around them. It has been so since the world began. At her feet we see the Holy Apostle Paul. He is also inclined, a sign of deep piety and sometimes raises his hand, a sign that he is saying something, he is communicating something, that he is close to the Mother of God. Behind each of the two we see other apostles, behind the apostle Peter and behind the apostle Paul. Also, in the background we see hierarchs, i.e. bishops, to be easier to understand. We recognize them by the fact that they wear vestments appropriate to their priestly rank. Here it is how well they can be seen. There are usually 4 of them, 2 pairs of 2. It is not the case to insist now on this, who they are, why they are so, why they and not others, this is not the purpose of this exposition. We have, therefore, the horizontal plan with the death bed, with the Mother of God asleep on the bed. This term “dormition” is found in the Holy Gospels with reference to the separation of the soul from the body. And that is why in the liturgical language of the Christian East we say “Dormition of the Mother of God”.
And now we have another plan, we have another projection, the vertical one. It is the Savior Jesus Christ. We see Him projected, His person, on the surface of an elongated mandorla, here, in both icons, but also in the reproduction from the Holy Mount Athos of a 15th century icon. And we see that he holds in His arms, or rather on His left arm, He holds the soul of His Mother. The soul cannot be seen, nor can the mind be seen with the bodily senses, it cannot be perceived, but the ancient iconographers have used this symbol: a newborn baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. Besides, we all know that death is a birth to a new life. And that’s why this symbol, the newborn wrapped baby, has been applied to the last event of our journey on earth. Therefore, we can very well notice in the big icon a beautiful reference, of an overwhelming emotional state. Just as the Most Pure One carried in her arms the eternal Son of the Heavenly Father, the Incarnate creative Logos, in the time of His childhood, now her Son, the true God, consubstantial with the Father, carries the soul of His Mother in His arms in order to make her partaker of the glory of God.
I said at the beginning of the meeting that the Feast of the Dormition gives us the opportunity to reflect on a fundamental truth of faith, namely that the Dormition of the Most Pure Lady means the first deification of a human being, or as the apostle Peter would say, the partaking of the first human to the divine nature, and this happened before the end of history and Last Judgment. An element that appears a little later: this secondary scene that takes place in the bottom section. We see it very well in the big icon. It is a person who has his hands raised, but cut off. In front of him there is the Archangel [Michael] with the sword who cuts off his arms. We can see it pretty well here. This element does not appear in the old icon. I said, it is a later element, which illustrates a fact that we find in the Church Tradition, in the Christian Tradition, namely that when the funeral ceremony of the Mother of God took place, a fanatical Jew attempted to overturn her deathbed, that is to desecrate the body of the Most Pure Lady. And then the Archangel stopped him, in the sense that he forbade the desecration of a holy thing. We have a teaching here. Surely this secondary element in a way distracts attention from the death bed, from the image of the Blessed Virgin and from the presence of the Savior Jesus Christ, but also this secondary element, as I said, gives us a lesson, namely that it is not allowed to desecrate the human body even after the soul departs this clay vessel of the body. The body remains sacred in all states of its existence.
Now, regarding the teaching that we should apply to our lives, of course, I have already said that at the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God we have the opportunity to contemplate the first deified human being before the Last Judgment. It is very important to remember this. The troparion of the Feast that summarizes in its few sentences the meaning of the Feast, as it is developed in iconography, is of great use to us. The troparion says: “In birth”, surely it is about the moment when she gave birth to the creative Logos, “In giving birth you preserved your virginity, in falling asleep you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos. You were translated to life,”, it is about eternal life, the life beyond, “O Mother of Life,” in this case it is written in capital letters, that is, the mother of Life, the mother of the One who is the Life and Resurrection of the world.
As for the place in the church, in the liturgical space, according to the canons of the Eastern liturgical tradition, the place where the Dormition of the Mother of God is prescribed to be painted is the wall above the narthex that believers see whenever they leave the church. And why there? That is the question. And it is very important to remember. Whenever we leave the church, the house of God, we see the Dormition of the Mother of God, that is, we see the first deified human being before the Resurrection of the dead, and at the same time, at least a little, we contemplate, we try to contemplate the image of our own death, but also our final destiny, our supreme calling, namely to become partakers of the divine nature.