The Assumption (Dormition) of the Virgin

Kiev (Novgorod?) School, end of the 12th--beginning of the 13th century.

Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 160 (155) x 133 (128) cm.


Assumption of the Virgin

The tradition holds that the Emperor Marcian and his wife Pulcheria wanted to possess the body of Mary, Mother of God. St. Juvenal, at that time Bishop of Jerusalem, made known to the Emperor that Mary died in the presence of all Apostles, but her tomb, when opened at the request of St. Thomas, was found empty. After this, the Apostles believed that Mary's body was taken up to heaven along with her soul. The belief in the corporeal Assumption of the Virgin is universal in the East and in the West and is founded on an apocryphal treatise, written around the 4th or 5th century, and attributed to St. John. The subject appeared in Byzantine art around the 6th century. The feast of Dormition was specially revered in Kievan Rus', where the famous Church of the Tithe (996) in Kiev was possibly consecrated as a Dormition Church.

Since the Dormition was a popular subject from the beginning of Russian icon painting, numerous examples of this subject can be found in museums: Dormition of the Virgin (late 14th century) ascribed to Theophanes the Greek; Assumption of the Virgin (early 16th century) from Novgorod; The Dormition (1547) by Master Oleksa (shown below), and the Kievan School's Dormition of the Virgin (late 12th-early 13th centuries). In all these examples we find some similarities in the composition. We can see the figures of the Apostles, the Fathers of the Church, Christ holding Mary's soul and the Virgin's dead body lying on a bed. We can also see differences in composition: for instance, the icons of Theophanes and Olexiy have buildings in the background. The icon painted by Theophanes has a candle in the foreground, whereas Olexiy's work and the 16th-century icon from Novgorod include an apocryphal narrative about a Jewish priest who, not believing in the Virgin's sanctity, had an evil intention to overturn Mary's bed. When he tried to desecrate the bier, the archangel Michael cut off his hands. Only after the priest acknowledged the Virgin's holiness, his hands were restored.

Master Oleksa: Assumption of the Virgin

The icon presented here is attributed either to Kiev or to Novgorod School. Those scholars who maintain that this painting comes from Novgorod, point out the brightness of the colors. However, if we compare this icon with other Novgorodian works, we can see that the typical Novgorodian red (cinnabar) differs considerably from the red used in this icon. It should be noted, however, that the work comes from the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin in the Desyatinnyi (Tithe) Monastery in Novgorod.

The first aspect that I would like to comment on is the combination of colors: the contrast between the yellow background and the opaque red in the Virgin's bed. These two colors, with different tonalities, are also prominent in the Apostles' clothes. The colors seem to divide the painting in two. It appears that the painter has marked a path to heaven for Mary's soul, coloring the right part of the composition with yellow tones and the left one with red tones.

This is a rare example of a complex composition in the Kievan School, usually characterized by a limited number of figures and simple compositions. Although there are about thirty figures, there are no unnecessary details, only the ones that the subject of the Assumption requires. The icon is monumental, full of harmony and grace; in other words, it has a great impact on the viewer. At the same time, the artist economizes space by painting a complete story in only one panel. Another aspect of the icon is the absence of shadows, which increases the sensation of flatness. I can see inverted perspective in the way the artist painted the bed and the body of the Virgin.

At the lower level we see the twelve Apostles surrounding the Virgin's bier, attending to her body. Two of them are bending over. The one at the right side shows a universally accepted gesture of respect and submission, bowing at her feet. The other one, at the left, appears inclined towards the Virgin's face, as if he was carefully listening to her last words.

The Fathers of the Church are located behind the Apostles, wearing the typical Orthodox white liturgical robes with crosses. Behind this scene, the spirit of Christ stands in the center, holding in his arms a child in white -- a symbol of Mary's soul. The artist makes sure that the viewer realizes the importance of these central figures. These are the only two figures that look to the outside of the painting, straight into the viewers' eyes.

Mary's soul, dressed in pure white, is depicted in a sitting position, with her hands put together in a sign of prayer. Christ is holding the soul not in a mother-like fashion, but as if he was showing it to everyone. He is showing the viewer the path to sanctity through purity and prayer. All the primary figures form the main subject and their faces are shown frontally. This approach has been used to show the spirituality of the face as much as possible; profiles were usually reserved for evil figures such as demons.

The upper figures are less relevant, and for this reason they are considerably smaller than the lower group. We can see again the same twelve Apostles; they wear the same robes, with the same color tones--red at the left, yellow at the right. While the earthly Apostles in the lower register are remarkably rigid, their heavenly counterparts are presented with halos and in various dynamic positions, transmitting a sense of celestial joy. The artist surrounds these twelve figures with white clouds of Heaven. All of these Angels-Apostles have a pair of extremely asymmetric and strangely shaped wings.

Four bigger Angels, with stylized and large wings are flanking the figures of Christ and the Virgin's soul, indicating their ascending path. Two of them are looking back at the Angels-Apostles, pointing to the path with their hands. The larger Angels are recognizing with this gesture the importance of the twelve Apostles in the eternal life of the Virgin. The two other larger Angels are placed horizontally and they hold the Holy Scriptures, the guide to eternal life. Finally, the semicircle at the top of the painting represents a "window," through which the Archangel Michael soars towards heaven with the Virgin's soul in his hands. The ascending process is now completed. [M. P-T.]

[Source: Catholic Encyclopedia, Ukrainian Icon, Hamilton].


© Alexander Boguslawski 1998-2005