Temple Gallery

Established 1959

Dormition - exhibited at the Temple Gallery, specialists in Russian icons

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E011. Dormition

Second half of the 17th century
Tempera on gesso and wood
Panel: 52 x 40.5 cmClick here to convert metric size to imperial

Provenance:  Private Collection, Canada

Condition:  Minor restorations and abrasions commensurate with age

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The Dormition (‘Falling Asleep’) of the Virgin is one of the Twelve ‘Great Feasts’ of the Orthodox Church, celebrated on August 15. The icon concludes the series of Festival icons on the Tchin (order) of the Iconostasis. The tradition of the death – or rather non-death, merely ‘falling asleep’ – of the Virgin is widely and differently understood according to the Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Anglican point of view. The discussion is further complicated by the separate, though closely related, concept of the ‘Assumption’ of Mary, in both body and soul, into heaven. The event has no historical foundation and is not referred to in the Bible. Historians generally agree that festal celebration of the Dormition can be traced to Jerusalem at the end of the 4th century but not earlier. Other indications refer to texts (and possible images) of the 5th and 6th centuries. Theological firm ground begins to appear in the writings of John of Damascus and John I of Thessalonike in the 8th century, though these authors both draw on apocryphal or legendary material attributed to James the Brother of the Lord.

The earliest representations in art are found in ivories and steatite miniature carvings from Constantinople in the 10th century by which time the iconography, which will remain unchanged for the next thousand years, is fully formed. The classical image shows the Mother of God lying on her deathbed surrounded by the twelve apostles and to which group are added two, three or sometimes four bishops. Behind her Christ holds her soul, in the form of a small child or eidolon. Between the 12th and 14th centuries the composition is sometimes more elaborate including angels who will receive Mary’s soul and carry it up to heaven, mourning women and, most elaborate of all, the scene where the twelve apostles floating on clouds witness the entry of Mary through the heavenly gates into Paradise. Another incident is often included where the non-believer Jephonias, who dared to touch the sacred bier, has his hands cut off by the Archangel Michael. (They were later miraculously restored when he converted to Christianity.)

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