In an earlier posting, I discussed the Pokrov image of Mary — the “Protection” image, which shows her appearing in the air above congregants in the Church of the Vlakhernae at Constantinople, holding her veil above them as a sign of protection.

There is, however, another related but visually quite different icon type of Mary related to protection.  Not surprisingly, it is called the Pokrovitelnitsa, “The Protectress.”

For the origins of this concept, we may look to the earliest-known Marian hymn/prayer, found written in Greek on a Coptic papyrus from Egypt — Rylands Papyrus #470.   It is generally known by its first words in Latin translation, Sub Tuum Praesidium — “Under Your Protection.”  Though it is fragmentary, the missing parts may be supplied to read:

Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν εὐσπλαγχνίαν………..”Under your compassion
καταφεύγομεν, Θεοτόκε………………We flee for refuge, God-birther
Τὰς ἡμῶν ἱκεσίας……………………….Our petitions
μὴ παρίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει…………….Do not disregard in affliction
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνων λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς….But rescue us from danger
μόνη Ἁγνή, μόνη εὐλογημένη………Only Pure, only Blessed.”

We can paraphrase it as:

We flee under your compassion for refuge, Birthgiver of God; do not despise our prayers when troubles surround us, but deliver us from danger, only pure one, only blessed one.

It is noteworthy that in this prayer, Mary is not approached as an intercessor or intermediary, but rather approached directly for her powers of deliverance.

It is not surprising that we find this earliest-known prayer to Mary in Egypt.  Egypt was the land of the goddess Isis, the mother of the god Horus, and one of her titles was Mut Netjer,” “Mother of the God,” which we may liken to Theotokos –– “Birth-Giver of God” in Greek.  As I have said before, as Christianity spread in the Greco-Roman world (which included Egypt at that time), the worship of the old gods was first discouraged, then persecuted, so their places and functions in the hearts of the populace were gradually replaced by Christian saints, the most prominent of which was Mary, who took on the role of the new Mother Goddess.

I have said that the Sub Tuum is the earliest-known Marian prayer, but just how early is it?  How long did it take early Christians to begin calling upon Mary?  Well, this is disputed.  One scholar, based on handwriting style, dates the papyrus fragment as early as the 200s c.e., but others, taking handwriting and other evidence into account, place it in the 300s to 400s c.e.  The later period is generally favored because there is no other evidence of prayer to Mary in the 200s, nor was the term Theotokos then in common use.  The use of Theotokos as a title of Mary was only officially authorized at the Council of Ephesus, in 431 c.e., after a controversy over whether Mary should be called “Birthgiver of Christ” or “Birthgiver of God.”  The latter won out.

Gregory Nazianzen, who died about 390 c.e., tells in his account of the sufferings of St. Justina that “she prayed earnestly to the Virgin for help.”  So we know that people were praying to Mary in the latter part of the 4th century.

So just how old then, is the Sub Tuum Praesidium fragment?  C. H. Roberts, who published papyrus #470, wrote in his catalog:

Lobel would be unwilling to place 470 later than the third century. But such individual hands are hard to date, and it is almost incredible that a prayer addressed directly to the Virgin in these terms could be written in the third century. The Virgin was spoken of as Θεοτόκος [Theotokos] by Athanasius ; but there is no evidence even for private prayer addressed to her (cf. Greg. Naz. Orat. xxiv. II) before the latter part of the fourth century, and I find it difficult to think that our text was written earlier than that.

So the date of the fragment remains imprecise, with the latter half of the 4th century seeming most likely to me, from present evidence.

But what does all this have to do with icons?  It is the notion of the “protection” of Mary, of supplicants going to her for security in times of trouble.

In the standard Pokrov type, Mary holds her veil over congregants for protection.  That is the icon type popular in the East, in Tsarist Russia.  This form of the “Protection” icon was not generally found in Greek Orthodoxy.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

In the Roman Catholic West, however, the protection of Mary was visualized somewhat differently, as Mary spreading wide her mantle, and people gathering under it on both sides for protection, as in this early Tuscan example from the Cenacolo di Santo Spirito in Florence.  It is called the Madonna della Misericordia, or more commonly in English, “Our Lady of Mercy”:

In the later years of Russian Orthodox iconography, the Western Madonna della Misericordia image was borrowed as an icon type, though it was not common.  Here is an example.  The title inscription reads “The ‘Protectress’ Most Holy Mother of God.”  But it is often known by the title Покрый нас кровом крылу Твоею — Pokruiy nas krovom kruilu Tvoeiu — “Protect us with the Shelter of Your Wings.”

(Courtesy of the Icon Museum, Kampen: ikonenmuseumkampen.nl)
(Courtesy of the Icon Museum, Kampen: ikonenmuseumkampen.nl)

As we see, it depicts the basic Madonna della Misericordia image of Mary standing, holding her mantle out to take in and protect supplicants beneath it.   But certain changes are found when this image is used in Russian iconography.  It is, for example, standard in Russian Orthodox versions of the type to give Mary wings, reflecting Revelation 12:14:

And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.”

This so-called “Apocalyptic Woman” is considered a symbol of the Church in Eastern Orthodoxy, but Mary is also considered to represent the Church.  Mary is also found with wings, for example, in certain Deisis representations.

Another element added to this particular example, though not found in all icons of the type, is the wall in the background.  That connects this example with the icon type known as the Nerushimaya Stena — “The Unshakeable Wall,” as well as the “Wall to Virgins” type (see my earlier posting on that icon).  And to emphasize that, this example has a banner at its base with a heavily abbreviated Slavic inscription, a slight variation on a line from the Canon to the Most Holy Mother of God:

“Save from harm your servants, O Mother of God, Virgin, for we all flee to you after God, as an unshakeable wall and defense.”

In Western European examples of the Madonna della Misericordia, various types and numbers of supplicants are shown kneeling for protection under Mary’s mantle.  In the Russian icon versions, it is common to show bishops, monks, and others, along with kings.  And symbols of authority such as bishop’s staffs and kingly scepters and orbs are placed upon the ground before Mary, showing that they submit to her authority.

The two angels on clouds beside Mary in the above example are the Archangels Michael at left, and Gabriel at right.  They hold disks with the Greek letters MP ΘΥ, abbreviating Meter Theou, “Mother of God.”  The border saints are at left Venerable Paraskoviya (Paraskeva) and Bishop Sylvester, Pope of Rome; at right Akilina and Venerable Matrona.  Jesus blesses from the clouds at top center.

The following, rather out-of-proportion example of the Pokrovitel’nitsa type includes an inscription beside Mary’s wings, a slight variation of Psalm 90:14 (Psalm 91 in KJV numbering).

The psalm reads:

покры́ю и́, я́ко познá и́мя моé.
“I will protect him, because he has known my name.”
But the icon inscription changes it to:
“I will protect them, because they have known my name.”

The “Protect us with the Shelter of Your Wings” type is believed to have entered Russia via Ukrainian engravings in the latter part of the 1600s.

As an aside, some of you may remember the “Singing Nun,” (Sister Smile, Soeur Sourire, Sister Luc-Gabrielle, Jeanine Deckers) from the 1960s, whose life ended in tragedy.  Her then-popular song was Dominique, about St. Dominic (not saintly in my view, due to his connection with the persecution of the Cathars).  In that paradoxically cheerful and bouncy song about converting the Albigensians (though Dominic was largely a failure at that) one stanza was:

Dominique vit en rêve
Les prêcheurs du monde entier
Sous le manteau de la Vierge
En grand nombre rassemblés

“Dominic saw in a dream
The preachers of the entire world
Under the mantle of the Virgin
In great number assembled.

Most Americans had not the slightest idea what the song was about.  They just liked the voice and the tune.  But the “great number assembled” in the story of Dominic’s dream were Dominican monks, who are also known as Les Frères Prêcheurs — “The Preaching Brothers.”  In any case, the song contains the same notion of protection and help under the mantle of Mary that we find expressed somewhat differently in various Western paintings of the Madonna della Misericordia and in Tsarist Russian icons of the Pokrovitelnitsa — “The Protectress.”



Today I want to talk about icons of the Dormition, Uspenie in Slavic, Koimesis in Greek. It means “Falling Asleep.” The Dormition icon represents the death of Mary, mother of Jesus. We have already seen that many icons incorporate apocryphal elements. The Dormition type is based entirely on such “pseudepigraphal” writings, or to avoid the euphemism, writings forged under the names of noted figures in Christian history.
Here is an elaborate version of the Dormition:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

In the center is Mary lying on a bier. In the sky above we see the Apostles arriving on clouds moved by angels, to be present at her death:


And then we see them after arrival, standing around her bier. So they are represented twice in the icon, to show two stages of time.

Directly above Mary stands Jesus, who holds Mary’s soul, depicted as an infant because she was just born into Heaven, on his left arm. Above Jesus is a red, winged angel of the cherubim rank.


The fellow whose head is visible at lower right in the image above is Dionysius the Areopagite. He wears the stole of a bishop, and often shown also are Timothy (the one known to the Apostle Paul) and Hierotheus. Some examples also include James, while other examples include saints of later periods.

In the clouds at the top, we see two angels waiting on the other side of the opened doors of Heaven. Their hands are covered with cloths, which is a sign of veneration for a sacred object or person:


Just below Mary’s bier is a man with his hands reaching upward. This, according to the old story, is Athonios (Iephonias in Greek examples), a Jew jealous of the honor shown Mary, who tried to push over the bier but was prevented from doing so by an angel with a sword, who cuts of Athonias’ hands. In this example his hands have not yet been cut off. In some examples, however, his hands are shown severed from his arms. This is an example of the anti-Semitism that one sometimes finds in Christian history and in Eastern Orthodoxy.


Those familiar with the New Testament will recognize that the story of the Dormition is nowhere found in it. It actually comes from extra-biblical spurious writings, primarily represented by the Account of St. John the Theologian of the Dormition of the Mother of God, a Greek text that is usually dated to the 6th century, though some would date it earlier (and which of course uses the name of the Apostle John to give a semblance of veracity). However Epiphanius of Salamis, who died c. 403, wrote in his Panarion 79:11, that nothing certain was known of the death of Mary, quite in contrast to the later, elaborate tale of the Dormition, in which we find the account of why and how the Apostles were brought to witness Mary’s death:

And she prayed, saying: My Lord Jesus Christ, who did deign through your supreme goodness to be born of me, hear my voice, and send me your apostle John, in order that, seeing him, I may partake of joy; and send me also the rest of Thy apostles, both those who have already gone to you, and those in the world that now is, in whatever country they may be, through your holy commandment, in order that, having beheld them, I may bless your name much to be praised; for I am confident that you hear your servant in everything.

And while she was praying, I John came, the Holy Spirit having snatched me up by a cloud from Ephesus, and set me in the place where the mother of my Lord was lying… And the three virgins came and worshipped… And the holy mother of God answered and said to me: The Jews have sworn that after I have died they will burn my body. And I answered and said to her: Your holy and precious body will by no means see corruption…

And the Holy Spirit said to the apostles: Let all of you together, having come by the clouds from the ends of the world, be assembled to holy Bethlehem by a whirlwind, on account of the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ; Peter from Rome, Paul from Tiberia, Thomas from hither India, James from Jerusalem. Andrew, Peter’s brother, and Philip, Luke, and Simon the Cananaean, and Thaddaeus who had fallen asleep, were raised by the Holy Spirit out of their tombs; to whom the Holy Spirit said: Do not think that it is now the resurrection; but on this account you have risen out of your tombs, that you may go to give greeting to the honour and wonder-working of the mother of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, because the day of her departure is at hand, of her going up into the heavens. And Mark likewise coming round, was present from Alexandria; he also with the rest, as has been said before, from each country. And Peter being lifted up by a cloud, stood between heaven and earth, the Holy Spirit keeping him steady. And at the same time, the rest of the apostles also, having been snatched up in clouds, were found along with Peter. And thus by the Holy Spirit, as has been said, they all came together.

Now obviously this is not an historical event. It is mythmaking, a part of the ever-increasing veneration of Mary that occurred in the Church after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire under Constantine and the influx into the Church of large numbers of pagans, accustomed to a mother goddess, who found in Mary a replacement. The earliest written example of Marian veneration is found on a damaged papyrus that dates no earlier than the 4th century to the second half of the 3rd century, and comes, not surprisingly, from Egypt, where formerly the Goddess Isis was very prominent, whose worship also spread into Rome:


The emended Greek version of the prayer (I have added an interlinear translation) reads:

Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν
Beneath your
We flee for refuge
Θεοτὸκε· τὰς ἡμῶν
O Birth-giver-of-God; our
ἱκεσίας μὴ παρ-
petitions do not
ίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει
despise in need
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνου
but from peril
λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς
deliver us
μόνη ἁγνὴ
Only Pure [One]
μόνη εὐλογημένη.
Only Blessed [One]

There are generally two versions of the Dormition icon. The first, like that above, shows the Apostles arriving on clouds as well as the scene of the angel cutting off the hands of Athonias. The second simplifies the type by omitting those elements.

The Dormition of the Mother of God is one of the major festivals of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and is found both in icons of the major Church festivals and, as we have seen, as a separate icon type.

A widespread, popular apocryphal tale of Mary descending into Hades before she ascended to Heaven came into Russia from the Byzantine Greek world, via Bulgaria.  In it, Mary goes to the Mount of Olives and calls the Archangel Michael to take her down to Hades so she might see the torments sinful Christians were suffering there.  Michael then acts as her guide through Hades (“Hell”), and shows her its various regions and gruesome tortures, much as Dante is led through Hell by the Roman poet Virgil.  The difference is that Mary then beseeches God to be merciful, but he only relents to a certain degree, holding off the tortures of the condemned to give them a rest between Easter and All Saints Day (or Good Thursday through Pentecost– accounts vary)  Oddly, it is specifically mentioned that Mary refuses to intercede for “the unbelieving Jews” in Hades, which no doubt contributed to the unfortunate antisemitism that so often appears in Slavic countries.  It is likely that Dante got the idea for his guided tour through Purgatory, Hell, and Heaven via this apocryphal tale as brought to Italy by Bulgarian Manicheans.  The tale of Mary’s descent to Hades is mentioned in Dostoevskiy’s novel The Brothers Karamazov.