The Virgin and Child, destroyed apse mosaic from The Church of the Dormition, Nicaea by Unknown Byzantine artist

Unknown Byzantine artist

The Virgin and Child, destroyed apse mosaic from The Church of the Dormition, Nicaea, 8th Century, Mosaic, Destroyed, The Church of the Dormition, Nicaea; Photograph from the Archive of the Oriental Department, The State Hermitage Museum; Photo © State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

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‘The Womb of the Morning’

Commentary by

The apse mosaic of the destroyed Dormition Church in Nicaea was conceptually constructed around the figure of Mary standing upright with the Christ Child at her bosom.

Black and white photographs taken not long before the destruction of the monument in 1922 reveal that the mosaic was reworked on several occasions. Traces visible around the figure of the Virgin indicate that it replaced an earlier mosaic representing the cross, perhaps an iconoclastic modification of the original design.

Directly above the Mother of God a large semicircular section of the mosaic alluded to the heavenly realm. It was characterized by three bands rendered in different shades of blue. From within this sky a right hand—the Hand of God—pointed in the direction of the Mother of God. The idea of divine presence would have been reinforced with the help of inlaid rays of blue light emanating from the sky and penetrating the golden surface of the apse.

At the top of the sanctuary space, there was a mosaic image of the Hetoimasia: the throne prepared for the Second Coming of the Lord.

The meaning and theological message of the entire triumphant scene unfolding before the eyes of the beholder was made explicit with the help of inscriptions. Inscribed in Greek in a semicircle below the representation of the heavens was a slightly-paraphrased line from Psalm 110:3: ‘I begat Thee in the womb before the Morning Star’. The theophanic vision of the Incarnation in the apse was linked to the Old Testament promise that God was the source of life and future salvation.

By creating a complex symbiosis between the text of the psalm and the image, the authors of this decorative scene provided a visual commentary which enriched earlier interpretations of the psalm with Christological associations, and read it as a quintessential statement about the mystery of Incarnation.

 

References

Barber, Charles. 2005. ‘Theotokos and Logos: The Interpretation and Reinterpretation of the Sanctuary Programme of the Koimesis Church, Nicaea’, in Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium, ed. by Maria Vassilaki (Aldershot: Ashgate), pp.43–60

Underwood, Paul. A. 1959. ‘The Evidence of Restorations in the Sanctuary Mosaics of the Church of the Dormition at Nicaea’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 13: 235–43