Wednesday, August 17, 2005

On the Subject of Anti-Semitism in Orthodox Icons of the Dormition of the Virgin

"According to some ancient traditions, the mother of Jesus "fell asleep in the Lord" around the year 48 C.E. and was buried near the Garden of Gethsemane. As Christian theology developed, Jesus’ mother came to be regarded with great reverence, and we know that by 450 there was a church built over the traditional gravesite. By the sixth century, the Feast of the Dormition (the "falling asleep" or koimesis) was established as one of the major festivals of the Church, and legends about the death of Mary were recorded: it was believed that the apostles, scattered throughout the world to spread the gospel, were miraculously gathered at her bedside, and because of her privileged position as the mother of Christ, she was said to have been assumed bodily into heaven in a manner similar to the Old Testament figures Enoch and Elijah.

Icons thus depict her death or funeral with the apostles gathered round the bier, with Christ above her holding her soul (shown as a child wrapped in swaddling clothes), angels, and sometimes at the top we see Mary enthroned in heaven.

The most common variants include all these elements, but one version depicting her funeral shows a figure in the foreground with outstretched arms, whose hands have been cut off by a sword-wielding angel.

According to Elisheva Revel-Neher, in her study of "The Image of the Jew in Byzantine Art", the figure is that of Jephonias, a Jew. During Mary’s funeral procession, he contemptuously reached out to touch her catafalque or attempted to overturn her body. The Jephonias legend first appears in apocryphal texts of the fifth and sixth centuries, and three successive elements are present: his hands touching the fabric and becoming stuck, the appearance of an angel who frees him by cutting off his hands, followed by his repentance and conversion with the restoration of his hands. The story of the "Passing of Mary" was attributed to the apostle John, and while a major theme of the account is the hatred of Jews for all things Christian, nevertheless, it allows that Jews are capable of conversion. According to Revel, the earliest known artistic depictions of the legend are from Cappadocia [in modern - day central Turkey] around the ninth and tenth centuries, with subsequent examples from much later periods. What is significant is that by the end of the thirteenth century, a change occurred: the full legend, in which the character eventually repents and has his hands restored is abridged to indicate only the desecration and its divine punishment."

Alifa Saadya "Convert or Desecrator? The Image of the Jew in the "Jephonias Episode" in Icons of the Dormition" from Leon Volovici "Antisemitic Discourse in Post-Communist Eastern Europe: An Overview."

The Dormition, First half of the 18th century. Hetmanate and Sloboda (Central-Eastern) Ukraine. Unknown artist.
National Art Museum of Ukraine (Kyiv).
Via the Leopolis Project. The Lviv Theological Academy (Ihor Zhuk).
[During the period of 2000-2002, this Project
was created with the aid provided
by the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX)
and International Renaissance Foundation.]


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