Deposition by Andrey Rublyov

Andrey Rublyov

Deposition, 1425–27, Tempera and gold on panel, 88 x 68 cm, The Trinity Cathedral in the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, Sergiev Posad, Russia, Inv. 3053, akg-images / Album

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One Body, Many Members

Commentary by

This icon was written in 1425–27 by the Russian monk Andrey Rublyov. The scene is traditionally referred to in the East as the Epitaphios, or Lamentation over the Grave. The body of Jesus, laid flat on the tomb, is surrounded by a group of lamenting disciples, separated in the middle by the axis of the cross: to the right, Joseph of Arimathea, John the Apostle, and Nicodemus are bending over Jesus’s remains—the latter two reverently kissing them; to the left Mary, the mother, is silently holding his head and tenderly pressing her face against his, while in the background three women seem to be crying aloud in despair.

This group of seven disciples stands for the entire Church, organized, as it were, along two foundational axes: the horizontal axis of Jesus’s body, and the vertical axis of the cross. The Church is the ‘Body of Christ’ inasmuch as all its individual members orbit around the body of Jesus, and are assigned a function defined by their respective relationship to Jesus’s body parts. To Nicodemus, the hidden disciple, is assigned the most hidden part of Jesus’s body, the foot; to John, the priest, is assigned the very hand that held the bread and wine at the Last Supper; to the mother, Mary, is assigned the head, which first came out of her womb.

Besides Jesus and Mary, John is the only one whose head is surrounded by a halo, which singles out the ‘trinity’ formed by these three characters. Face to face, Jesus and Mary are represented in a loving, intimate embrace that is the beating heart of this icon. John’s gaze points exactly in that direction, as if enraptured by the mystery of their union. The Epitaphios is not about death, it is about life: the living tree of the Church stems from the ‘bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3) between the New Adam and the New Eve.

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