July 2009 Newsletter
 Special Feature: Iconography in the Orthodox Church
Part 3 of 4

The Icon of the Dormition (Falling asleep of the Theotokos) commemorates the death, resurrection and glorification of Christ’s Mother. In the icon the Theotokos is shown on the funeral bier. Christ, illuminated by the mandorla of divine glory, looks down at His Mother as He prepares to receive her soul into Heaven. He holds her soul, depicted as a babe wrapped in white garments, in His arms.

St. Peter, standing at the head of the bier, censes her body while St. Paul venerates her body from the foot of the bier. They are surrounded by the other Apostles, miraculously gathered from all over the world for the funeral. All of the Apostles are assembled for the funeral except Thomas who arrives three days later. Wishing to venerate the Theotokos, Thomas asks to see her for the last time. The tomb is found to be empty. Church tradition relates she was bodily resurrected.

Also shown are bishops in episcopal vestments reading the prayers for the funeral service. In the background faithful women look on the scene. The posture of all the figures direct attention to the Theotokos. Scores of angels surround Christ. Heaven, depicted as a semicircle at the top of the icon, is shown with its Gates open to receive the blessed soul of the Theotokos. Sometimes shown in the foreground is a man whose hands have been severed by an angel. He attempted to disrupt the procession carrying the body of the Theotokos to the site of her tomb near Gethsemane. Tradition tells that he was later healed. The Icon of the Dormition is one of the Apocryphal icons of the life of the Theotokos. These icons are based upon the writings of the Church Fathers as contrasted with icons based upon the Gospel writings of the Evangelists.

The Icon of the Resurrection or “Descent into Hell'' depicts the most sacred event of Christianity. The icon of Easter gives a powerful visual presentation and concise theological illustration of the essence of Orthodox religion and faith.

In the icon Christ is majestically depicted in gleaming robes of white and gold encircled by a full body nimbus radiating His Risen Glory. He stands boldly astride the broken Gates of Hell. The locks and chains of death and sin, broken by the presence of God's grace and love, fill the black void below Him. An old man tied with ropes, the Evil One, may be shown.

Christ is pulling Adam and Eve from their tombs, bestowing life to them and to all righteous souls. As the Forerunner of Christ in Hades, St. John the Baptist is always shown. St. John the Baptist has a halo while Adam and Eve do not. Also pictured are important personages of the Old Testament. Texts identify them as Kings David and Solomon, young Abel and Prophets of the Old Testament.

The Resurrection icon is a stunning example of theology in color. It is the visual counterpart to the joyous hymn sung at the Anastasi or Easter Resurrection Service and for the forty days following Easter. All Orthodox joyously proclaim, Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and giving life to those in the tombs.”

Other depictions of the Resurrection include icons of The Myrrh-bearing Women, the Empty Tomb, and St. Thomas touching the nail and lance wounds of Christ. Iconographers must depict events integral to the Resurrection, but not the Resurrection itself. Because the Resurrection was never described in Sacred writings of the Gospels or Church Fathers, images of the physical Resurrection of Christ are not shown in icons. This follows the basic tenet of iconography, that all icons must be based on writings of the Gospels and Church fathers.

(Written by Faye Peponis, who has served the Greek Orthodox Church for over 35 years in various administrative and teaching capacities. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Education from DePaul University and a Master's in Education from Purdue University.)

Click here to return to August newsletterEcclesia: Greek Orthodox Churches of the Chicago Metropolis

Excerpts and Photography from
Ecclesia: Greek Orthodox Churches
of the Chicago Metropolis

by Panos Fiorentinos

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