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Jephoniuas in Art of the Dormition

Jephoniuas in Art of the Dormition

Q: Can you tell me more about the icons of the Dormition which include the figure of " Jephonias" with his hands cut off?

A: The legend of Mary's burial reaches the West by way of the Liber de Transitu Mariae (two versions in Greek Church: (a) Pseudo-Johannine account used in the liturgy, and the homily by John of Tessalonike) dated 4/5th c. (b)The latter (610-649) presupposes an older, lost source (Accounts R, Transitus W, A, Ps. Melithon). Ps. Melithon seems to be the most widely-read source in the West. According to Account R, it is the high priests who impede the burial to progress and are blinded in retaliation.

In the West the Liber de Transitu is disseminated in Vincent of Beauvais' writings and the Legenda Aurea, and thus becomes part of Mary's death iconography, but disappears during the time of the Counter-Reformation (Trent). Most of the time, the motive of Mary's burial forms part of the cycle of Mary's life. Some examples: Bourges (fragments), St.-Pierre-le-Pullier (1185), Angers (stained glass), Notre Dame (Paris, reliefs north wall). St. Ouen (Rouen), Arena Chapel (Padua, 1310), Maesta of Duccio (Siena).

The Legenda Aurea (Jac. of Voragine) gives two versions: one with the high priest whose hands wither. Upon his profession of faith, his hands are healed and he opens the eyes of the blind assembly (people) with the branch of a palm tree. The second version speaks of Jephonias (Ruben in Latin). Only few representations show the "aggressor" as high priest (Arena chapel), mostly he is a young man with a Jewish hat (for example York Psalter, end 12c; relief in Notre Dame, Paris; Queen Mary's Psalter, ~1300). Different variants exist: one Jew, two or three, in various positions around the bier, the presence of the avenging angel. One of the most recent representations of Jephonias is that of a fresco (School of Raphael) in S. Maria Assunta in Trevignano (16c) showing him with hands cut off on his knees in front of Mary's deathbed. There also exists a combination of both versions: high priest (represented as bishop) standing at the bier healing a Jew struck by the angel.

Western liturgy does not dwell on Mary's death and burial but highlights her assumption. Besides, the scene is hardly well known, among priests as little as among the faithful.

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