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.
4 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, 3eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
9(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; 14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. 15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.